A £1bn black hole in funding for family doctors threatens to “destabilise the entire NHS” the Health Secretary has been warned by GPs.
Spending on general practice has fallen by £400m in the past three years, the Royal College of General Practitioners said – representing a 7 per cent cut for every patient in England.
But as GPs gathered for their annual conference in Harrogate, RCGP chair Dr Clare Gerada said that, with other costs incurred by GP surgeries in recent years, the actual shortfall was likely to be as much as £1bn.
She told Jeremy Hunt that he could not increase the workload of family doctors without major new investment, and called for a recruitment drive to find 10,000 more GPs to meet rising demand.
Speaking directly to the health secretary, Dr Gerada said: “I would urge you that actually we are at serious risk of destabilising the whole NHS. Of course we have to trade access and continuity [of care] but you can only have two out of the three of access, continuity and affordability… it’s really important that we can we put politics behind us and start looking at what is best for the NHS and our population.”
Mr Hunt was also warned that plans for GP surgeries to open from 8am to 8pm, as well as at weekends, were “unsustainable and unsafe.”
The scheme, aimed at reducing pressure on A&E by improving access to out-of-hours care, could only be achieved by forcing GPs to work 84-hour weeks, one GP said.
“I’ve worked 84-hour weeks and they are not safe and they are not sustainable,” Dr Peter Deveson, a south London GP told the health secretary, during a terse Q&A.
Mr Hunt told GPs he wanted to be “a doctors’ champion” and that he hoped history would judge him “one of the most pro-GP health secretaries in a generation”.
He said that the Department of Health planned to bring in 2,000 more GPs, and repeated his conference pledge of £50m to fund extra opening hours for GP surgeries in nine pilot areas.
But he was criticised for offering no additional funding to help family doctors throughout England cope with what the RCGP has described as a crisis for the profession.
Hosting her last RCGP conference before moving to a new senior role with the NHS in London, Dr Gerada told colleagues that GPs had been subject to an “orchestrated campaign” led by politicians and the media to undermine the profession.
“They unfairly hold us responsible for anything that goes wrong in the NHS – the failures in the emergency department, social care, problems with bed-blocking, berating us for not working out-of-hours,” she said.
“In truth there is a hidden story. Right now general practice is in crisis. Our patients are ageing and becoming more complex. We’re expected to do more for less and it’s getting worse… Jeremy Hunt said there needs to be more GPs. He talked about having 2,000 more GPs. We need to multiply that figure by five.”
Mr Hunt also pledged to free up GP time by reducing “micromanagement”, including a review of quality outcome framework (QOF) targets, which he said were not always as “clinically effective” as they could be.
A Department of Health Spokesperson said: “GPs do a vital job. We protected the NHS budget, and investment in general practice increased by 1.3% last year, but like the rest of the NHS, as the population ages GPs need to find efficiencies and do more with tight budgets.
“This week we announced a £50m fund for GPs who want to pioneer new ways of working, to help make the best use of their time.
“We also need to train more GPs to increase capacity in GP surgeries, so we have asked Health Education England to make sure in future 50% of medical students become GPs.”