A recent report warns the NHS could again be on the brink of being overwhelmed, this time due to severe GP shortages.
When the Covid-19 pandemic was at its peak, there was a risk that hospitalisations would result in the health service being overwhelmed. These new concerns are centred around a lack of available GPs as patient numbers rise. The analysis comes just days after it was revealed some patients could be facing a three-year wait for dental treatment on the NHS.
NHS England data was analysed by the Health Foundation, with figures showing that patients made over 28 million appointments in March. This is the highest figure on record and comes after a chaotic year for GP practices resulting from the pandemic.
Earlier this year, it was revealed NHS GPs were quitting at a rate of three per day, with surgeries losing close to 300 full-time GPs nationwide in the final quarter of 2020. Practices are struggling to get new GPs trained up as replacements, and the shortfall in GPs across practices could rise to 7,000 by 2023.
A tsunami of patients
One GP has described the situation as feeling like a ‘tsunami of patients.’ Dr Dean Eggitt, who is based in Doncaster, went as far as to say he would not like to be one of his patients right now because of the current situation.
Dr Eggitt said, "We have almost a tsunami of patients coming to us - it feels like the river has flooded the banks. It just keeps coming and coming and coming in this one massive, endless wave of patients who all are ill and need help and input. They're sick, they're complex and we've got very few places to send them. I wouldn't want to be my patient right now."
It is not just patients affected by the current situation – it is also taking its toll on both the doctors and administrative staff at practices. The West Midlands has been highlighted as one of the hardest-hit areas, and one local GP spoke about the issues facing staff.
He said, “Covid-19 has impacted the primary care workforce dramatically. We have had to change our work pattern and adapt the workplace to accommodate Covid-19 related rules and keep the patients and staff safe. At the same time, we need to continue to deliver a high-quality service. Staff, like others, have to manage personal losses and hardships to continue delivering care.”
The GP added staff morale had been seriously impacted over the past year and continued to suffer due to the current issues. He also said that there were ongoing issues with recruitment and retention at the practice.
Many patients unable to access services
The data analysis showed that in March, patients made 28.4 million appointments with both GPs and practice nurses. However, while this is a concern, doctors and patient groups are becoming increasingly worried about the number of patients who cannot get through to access the GP services they need.
The pandemic has already caused chaos for practices across the nation. NHS England figures show that the total number of appointments fell by 10% last year compared to the previous year. This equated to over 30 million fewer GP and practice nurse consultations.
The pandemic brought a colossal shift to remote consultations rather than in-person ones; the percentage of patients seen in practices fell from 79% to 54%. Patients' lives were also put at risk due to a 15% drop in the number of people being referred for urgent cancer checks.
Urgent review of GP services necessary
Patient groups are now calling for an urgent review of GP services stemming from the problems patients have accessing services. This comes as patients speak out about the issues they have had when trying to access GP services.
One patient who could not get through to her GP said that she struggled at home for weeks before finally ending up in hospital with colitis. By this time, she was so unwell that she had to have four blood transfusions after her health deteriorated rapidly. She said that phone lines to the practice were constantly engaged, and by the time she finally got through, she was already seriously ill.
Many fear this situation could become commonplace as struggling GP practices try to cope with the flood of patients trying to make appointments and access services now that lockdown has been eased.