At a time when the Tories are constantly attacking the SNP here in Ayrshire and across Scotland over GP numbers, a challenging issue that the SNP Government is tackling head on, it is interesting to see what is happening south of the border.
Family doctors have been leaving the National Health Service at a rate of more than 400 a month, threatening the government’s pledge to ensure general practitioners can provide the public with a seven-day-a-week operation.
A total of 5,159 GPs departed from the NHS in England between April 2016 and March 2017, according to NHS Digital, which collects health data.
The figures emerged after the Financial Times revealed that recruitment agencies could be paid up to £100m by the NHS to find 5,000 GPs — about half of them from overseas — to fill worsening staffing gaps in England.
But this recruitment drive may not be enough to enable the government hit its target for GPs to provide a seven-day service to the public by 2020.
Azeem Majeed, professor of primary care at Imperial College London, estimates there will be a shortage of 12,100 GPs in England by the end of the decade.
The number of GPs in England fell from 41,105 in 2014 to 40,490 last year.
There is a shortage of family doctors because students are shunning the medical profession in increasing numbers and trained doctors are choosing to quit early.
Steve Mowle, spokesperson for the Royal College of General Practitioners, said doctors were caught in a “pincer movement”, with some “leaving the profession earlier than they might have done because of the intense pressures they are working under — and potential future GPs choosing not to enter general practice because they see how incredibly tough it is”.
The organisation found in a survey that 39 per cent of doctors in England said they would be unlikely to be working in general practice in the next five years.
“If things aren’t done quickly to reverse this trend, then the future of the NHS is in jeopardy,” said Mr Mowle.
Over the past three years, there has been an 11 per cent drop in applications from A-level pupils to study medicine at university, said UCAS, the undergraduate admissions service. Some students will have been put off the medical profession by the prospect of high tuition fees.
Meanwhile more GPs are leaving their jobs well before they reach retirement age, reflecting how some have grown disillusioned with increasing demands and falling incomes.
About 20 per cent of doctors aged 55 and over are expected to retire early in the next few years, said Candesic, a consultancy.
GPs’ workload has increased 16 per cent over the past seven years as a result of the ageing population, a shift towards community care for certain illnesses, and a dearth of capacity in hospitals, said the RCGP.
Family doctors’ income has fallen sharply since 2005-06, with the average full-time doctor earning £101,500 before tax in 2014-15 — a 10 per cent drop in cash terms and a larger decline in real terms, said Victor Chua, partner at Mansfield Advisors, a consultancy.
“Compared to other English-speaking countries with similar medical-educational systems, the UK is starting to look a less attractive place to work,” he added.
Countries including the US are also facing a shortage of doctors, raising competition between nations for qualified staff.
The UK’s vote to leave the EU may exacerbate the GP shortage, according to the Centre for Health and the Public Interest, although it said that nurses have been the hardest hit so far.
“Given the shortage of doctors, with a steady decline in those signing up for GP training once qualified, Brexit is likely to create a serious problem,” said Sue Richards, co-chair of the CHPI.
Dr Krishna Kasaraneni, GP workforce lead at the British Medical Association, said the government needed a “long-term plan that addresses the fundamental pressures on general practice from rising patient demand, stagnating budgets and widespread GP shortages”.