Medical graduates should be offered incentives to become GPs in "under-doctored" regions of England, the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) has said.
Official figures show "blackspots" for GP recruitment have left the North-east of England, the East Midlands and Yorkshire and the Humber severely short of the new recruits needed to revitalise general practice.
The Chancellor, George Osborne, has earmarked £1.2bn to spend on improving access to family doctors, ending a decade of under-investment during which patients' waiting times soared.
But figures from Health Education England show that, in 2014, almost one in three GP-training places went unfilled in the North-east and East Midlands. One in four was unfilled in Yorkshire and the Humber and the North-west of England also struggled to fill quotas. Other regions were able to fill 93 per cent or more of training places, with London the most highly subscribed.
There are now concerns that next year's round of GP recruitment could be hit by a similar regional divide, jeopardising the Government's target of recruiting 3,250 new GPs annually by 2016. If that happens, some areas could miss out on the benefits of the new investment, funded by bank fines and aimed at improving GP access and cutting visits to A&E.
Dr Maureen Baker, chair of the RCGP, said that medicine was suffering from the "pull of London and the South-east" and that incentives should be offered – in the form of financial bonuses or career development opportunities at universities – to lure new doctors to "under-doctored" areas.
"We have no mechanism now to distribute the workforce," she said. "There has not been enough to attract people in. We do need to consider reasonable incentives to encourage doctors."
In England, 2,688 GPs were recruited in 2014, leaving nearly 400 posts unfilled. Wales and Scotland, in contrast, have been able to fill around 90 per cent of their GP training posts.
Dr Baker also said that medical schools need to do more to encourage medical students to become family doctors.
Recent research has shown that only 11 per cent of new medical students planned a career in general practice – despite the Government setting a target for half of all medical graduates to become GPs.
"At a formative stage of their career they're rooted in a system that values specialism – at most medical schools they don't get enough exposure to general practice," said Dr Baker, who last week wrote a letter to thousands of trainee doctors in England encouraging them to consider the career path.
GPs are central to the NHS's planned reforms over the next five years, which are expected to feature a major shift from hospital care to support in the community, often spearheaded by GP practices.
Dr Baker has also written to the UK's medical schools "to ask the heads to consider how they demonstrate [to students] that they value general practice".
GPs have previously warned that mounting workloads and negative media coverage of the profession have discouraged student medics from considering it as a career. It is not uncommon for GPs to see up to 60 patients a day, and demand has led to a two-week wait for an appointment becoming the norm in many areas. Early retirement and difficulties in bringing trained GPs back into the profession have led to a recruitment crisis – something that the Government's new investment plan is intended to resolve.
"General practice has had under-investment for the past decade," Dr Baker said. "But that is about to change and now is a good time to be coming into the profession. Doctors who are looking for a challenge and a satisfying, fulfilling career can make a very good career for themselves if they think about it now."