In an article published in the British Medical Journal, I discuss the implications of the current shortage of NHS general practitioners. Ensuring that countries have sufficient primary care doctors is a key challenge for health planners globally because of the important role that primary care plays in supporting cost-effective health systems that promote equity in health outcomes. For example, the USA is predicted to need 7,800 to 32,000 additional primary care physicians by 2025. We also know that the National Health Service (NHS) in the United Kingdom is short of general practitioners. What we do not know is the size of the shortage; and how many additional general practitioners the NHS needs to provide comprehensive primary care services.
In its plan for general practice published in 2016, NHS England set a target of 5,000 additional general practitioners by 2020. However, no data was presented to show that this was a sufficient number to meet the needs of primary care in England. Research presented at the Royal College of General Practitioners 2016 Annual Conference concluded that NHS England had substantially under-estimated the current shortage of general practitioners and how many new general practitioners would be needed to address future health needs in primary care. According to this analysis, in 2016 the NHS in England was already around 6,500 general practitioners below the ideal number, rising to 12,100 short by 2020. Given that recruitment to general practice training schemes in England remains below target, shortages of general practitioners will continue in the foreseeable future. What can the NHS do to provide comprehensive primary care services in this era of permanent shortages of general practitioners?
One key issue in workforce planning is the lack of accurate and timely data on workload in primary care; and the lack of accurate information on the number of general practitioners working in the NHS. The NHS does not routinely collect or publish information of the workload of general practices (in stark contrast to hospital activity, where workload statistics are published regularly). Information on the number of general practitioners working in the NHS is also limited and does not fully take into account what proportion of their time general practitioners spend on direct clinical care as opposed to time spent on administrative tasks; or time spent in management roles either inside or outside their general practices. Improving the statistics of the number of general practitioners working in the NHS and their workload would be a useful start. However, it will not by itself address the shortage of general practitioners. That requires more radical solutions than the NHS is currently considering.
The most important step will be to link primary care funding to workload through the implementation of workload-based funding for general practices. Since the NHS was established in 1948, capitation-based payments have been the core method of finding NHS general practice. However, capitation increasingly looks like a 20th century model of funding and one that is not fit for the 20th century. With activity-based funding, general practices would be paid for the work that they do. Any new work would only taken on by general practices if the funding for the work met the full costs of providing the service. Activity-based funding would also allow more rational decisions to be made about the transfer of work from secondary care to general practice; rather than the current situation in which work is often transferred from hospitals to general practices because there is little or no additional cost for the NHS in doing this.
One disadvantage for the NHS of activity-based finding is that this would be considerably more costly than the current method of funding. The government would then have a stark choice: fund NHS general practice entirely from taxation; part-fund it from taxation and allow general practices to charge patients to make up the difference; or scale back the services that general practices offer to fit in with the public funding that was available. All these options are problematic but this an issue on which the government urgently needs to take a decision as the current situation not tenable.
The NHS can also examine the use of non-medical practitioners and to what extent work done by general practitioners can be carried out by groups such as nurses, physician assistants, healthcare assistants, pharmacists and physiotherapists. For example, programmes that allow patients to see physiotherapists directly without requiring a referral from a general practitioner can help reduce demands on general practices and provide an alternative, cost-effective care pathway for patients with musculoskeletal problems. The NHS also needs to make more services fully accessible by patients without requiring a referral from a general practitioner – for example, exercise and weight reduction programmes, antenatal services, podiatry, termination of pregnancy services, and services for drugs and alcohol misuse.
Another action that can be taken to improve the supply of general practitioners is reducing the administrative burden on them. This requires a detailed review of all non-clinical tasks undertaken by general practitioners with the aim of removing as many as possible to free up more time for clinical work. An increasing administrative burden on physicians is a global phenomenon and something that increases stress among doctors. Hence, reducing the administrative burden on general practitioners, as well as releasing time that can be spent on clinical tasks, can also improve their morale and reduce their stress levels.
The NHS also needs to encourage doctors to return to clinical practice after career breaks. This is particularly important for women doctors who may have had career breaks for family reasons. Doctors are expensive to train and for the NHS not to have implemented effective initiatives to encourage their return to clinical work after career breaks is a waste of the public investment in their training. Other sectors – such as universities – have active programmes to encourage women to support women in returning to work and the NHS can learn from them. Key barriers to return to work include the very high indemnity payments that doctors now have to pay (particularly for out-of-hours work) and the poor child care support offered by the NHS to doctors with families. Finally, given that shortages of general practitioners will continue in the foreseeable future, they should be treated by the NHS as a scarce resource and be deployed in a manner that makes full use of their skills and training; with caps on the amount of work they are expected to carry out. In parallel, measures must be taken to remove barriers to recruitment and retention, while we put the systems in place to measure, track, and ultimately fix this threat to the sustainability of the health service.
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