Dr Mary McCarthy: GP shortage negatively impacting patient care

This week the news has focussed once again on the shortage of GPs and the negative impact this is having on patient care.

According to the latest statistics, the number of patients for each GP has risen by a third – a large increase by anybody’s books – while there has been no such corresponding rise in the number of GPs.

The result? Average waiting times are now longer than two weeks for the first time, according to the results of another survey released this week, and unless action is taken things look unlikely to improve.

In fact, the number of whole-time GPs is actually falling with more doctors opting to do fewer sessions or to work as locums where they have more flexibility.

This is understandable given that the average whole-time GP works between 12 to 14 hours each day, on average leaving little time for family and leisure – and yet the GP working day could increase further to 16 hours or even longer if things do not improve.

The average GP patient list now stands at nearly 2,200 – twice the number it is deemed safe to deal with and double the average GP list seen in many European countries.

Doctors being burdened with too many patients has a negative impact for everyone.

Appointment times become shorter – 10 minutes rather than the 20 to 30 minutes that European doctors have, while waiting times for appointments become longer, leading to the frustration of both doctors and patients.

General Practitioners train for a long time – five years after qualifying with a medical degree – to become expert in their craft and they take pride in being the best they can be.

However, it is difficult when there is not enough time to listen properly to the patient’s story while all the time being conscious of those waiting to be seen.

This pressure is not good for doctors, but it is not safe for patients either.

It is easier to miss important clues if the doctor is stressed and the rate of burnout among medical staff is increasing year by year.

We need more GPs in the NHS and although more health care assistants are joining general practice, it doesn’t compensate for the shortage of GPs.

General Practice should be made an attractive career for young medical graduates and work is underway to encourage recruitment, as well as to retain experienced practitioners.

One project that is being carried forward by the British Medical Association and the Royal College of General Practitioners is the recognition of GPs as Specialists in General Practice/Family Medicine, making their expertise clearer and putting GPs on a deserved equal footing with other specialists, such as hospital consultants, however, the General Medical Council is delaying this because it feels that the Medical Act should be amended.

This depends on political will and at the moment the government is preoccupied with Brexit.

It is feasible that the recognition of the speciality could come first, as it does with the recognition of other specialities, such as Sports Medicine or Emergency Medicine and the legislation could come later.

The current crisis in general practice might just be enough to make the General Medical Council consider this and think again.

* Dr Mary McCarthy is chair of the local medical committee and represents Shropshire, North Staffordshire and South Staffordshire on the General Practitioners Committee of the BMA. She has worked at Belvidere Surgery in Shrewsbury for more than 20 years.

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