Hundreds of GPs forced to take extra patients may retire early

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Hundreds of over-stretched family doctors are considering early retirement because of a massive increase in the number of patients being imposed on their practices.

Hundreds of over-stretched family doctors are considering early retirement because of a massive increase in the number of patients being imposed on their practices.

The problem stems from a shortage of newly qualified GPs, which has left many practices, including those in affluent areas, unable to fill staff vacancies.

Many doctors have closed their lists because of the pressure of work. But health officials have to ensure that everyone has a GP so they have forced some doctors to accept extra patients.

In the past year, the number of "compulsory allocations" in some areas has trebled. In Liverpool, allocations rose from 1,563 in 2000 to 3,817 in 2001 and are likely to exceed 5,000 this year.

In Leeds, 17 patients were allocated to doctors in June 2000, but in the same month last year the figure had risen to 178 and to 460 this year. Similar increases have been reported in Derbyshire, North Tyneside and Gateshead, and the Home Counties.

Dr John Grenville, secretary of the Derbyshire local medical committee, said half of practices in Derby had closed their lists to new patients, as had one third of the practices in the surrounding county. But compulsory allocations had more than trebled in the past 12 months.

"Doctors feel their workload is so great that if it increases any further, they won't be able to provide a safe service for patients. Many GPs are already working 11, 12 or 13 hours a day."

GPs who had planned to retire at 60 to 65 were now leaving at 55 or even earlier.

"We have got to crack this problem and we have got to crack it quickly. If we are on a downward spiral with doctors throwing in the towel because they are overworked, it is more difficult for the doctors who are left and makes it potentially unsafe for patients."

Dr Ian Winterton, a Newcastle GP and chairman of the regional general practices committee, said: "I have been in practice 27 years and never known it like this. It is worrying because we are losing doctors of very high calibre."

In nearby Gateshead, local doctors have threatened to resign if 2,750 patients, who have been left without a doctor after a local practice was unable to recruit two new doctors, are compulsorily allocated to their overloaded surgeries.

Dr Rob Dawson, who works at a four-partner practice in Gateshead with a list of 8,650, told the medical newspaper Pulse that local doctors were at breaking point.

"If they compulsorily allocate 2,750 patients it will probably result in resignations. That would cause a domino effect from practice to practice with people thinking about their position and possibly resigning.

"For many GPs it will be more cost-effective to resign from the partnership of a practice and go to work as a locum. The patients are innocent victims. They have been told to expect a Rolls-Royce service that we are having to deliver out of the back of a Mini."

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