A new BBC investigation into GP surgeries has found that more than 100 GP surgeries applied to NHS England in 2014/15 for permission to stop accepting new patients.
The investigation, which was based on a Freedom of Information request, highlighted that one of the key reasons is that GP surgeries find it very difficult to recruit new doctors. One of the reasons for the lack of candidates could be that the GP role has become increasingly stressful.
According to the BBC report, the recruitment problem is so acute in some areas that GP practices have considered offering substantial ‘golden hellos’ to attract candidates. The report looked at Clacton-on-Sea in Essex, which has a predominantly elderly population, where three out of four GP surgeries in the town centre have stopped taking on new patients. One town centre surgery, which recently offered a £9,500 bonus when it was unable to recruit new doctors, stopped taking on new patients after its patient list reached 9,000. The surgery considered this to be an unsafe level.
In the BBC report, the chairman of the BMA's GP committee, Dr Chaand Nagpul, said: "GP services are reaching breaking point as they struggle to cope with rising patient demand, falling resources and a shortage of GPs... Closing their list is the only option to maintain safe care to their local community."
Under the current system, GP surgeries must apply to NHS England for approval before they close their doors to new patients. The BBC's analysis of the Freedom of Information data suggested that around 46% of the surgeries that applied in the 2014/15 year were either denied permission or went on to withdraw their requests. According to NHS England, the approval system is designed to allow NHS England to consider "both the impact on patients as well as on neighbouring practice and services to avoid displacing a problem elsewhere." However, the BBC has found that, in at least one region, Birmingham, GPs are considering the possibility of closing their patient lists without waiting for NHS England approval.
NHS England is investing £15 million to boost the GP workforce and says it is "working with others to develop new services to combat issues like stress and burnout."
Camilla Wonnacott, associate in the Penningtons Manches clinical negligence team, said: “GPs provide a vital frontline service to their patients. It has been recognised for some time that their working environment has become increasingly stressful. This is of considerable concern as a stressed and exhausted GP will undoubtedly struggle to maintain a consistent level of patient care.
“The BBC investigation suggests that doctors may now be voting with their feet either by taking steps to limit the number of patients their GP practice handles or by training for a different area of medicine entirely.”