1,000 GP partners lost in 12 months as thousands more near retirement

General practice lost almost 1,000 GP partners in the year to December 2019 - and thousands more are on the verge of retirement, analysis by GPonline reveals.

GP partner numbers falling (Photo: Martin Prescott/Getty Images)
GP partner numbers falling (Photo: Martin Prescott/Getty Images)

The number of full-time equivalent (FTE) GP partners in England fell by 977 in the 12 months to December 2019, official data from NHS Digital show - a 5.1% drop.

Meanwhile, analysis of the GP workforce figures suggests that more than 5,000 FTE partners could retire by 2025. A total of 30% of the FTE GP partner workforce is aged over 55 - and a huge BMA poll in 2015 showed that 80% of GPs in this age group planned to quit within five years.

Between September and December 2019 alone, 224 FTE GP partners were lost to the profession, the figures show.

The total of 18,079 FTE GP partners now working in the NHS in England is a staggering 3,610 - 17% - lower than the figure for September 2015, when former health and social care secretary Jeremy Hunt made his ill-fated promise to boost the GP workforce by 5,000 FTE doctors by 2020/21.

BMA leaders said the continuing fall in numbers of partners - the senior GPs who run practices - was 'particularly concerning'.

Under the 2020 GP contract, which takes effect from April, first-time partners will be offered golden hello payments worth up to £20,000 for a full-time role in a bid to reverse the decline.

But concerns have been raised over the contract offering relatively little to retain existing GP partners - who have been under intense pressure from spiralling workload as numbers of fully-qualified FTE GPs have continued to drop in recent years while numbers of patients registered with practices in England have soared.

Primary care workload

GPonline revealed earlier this year that GP practices delivered a total of 1.22m appointments per working day in 2019 - with total appointments for the year up by nearly 4m.

BMA GP committee workforce lead Dr Krishna Kasaraneni said: 'We hope that the recent changes negotiated by the BMA for incentives for both new partners and to attract GPs to areas that are particularly short of family doctors will go some way to boosting numbers. Meanwhile, increased investment for the wider practice team should help support practices in ensuring patients have timely access to the right professional so doctors can focus on those who need their expertise most.

'But there is much more to do on workload, as well as bureaucracy and premises – issues that impact partners specifically.'

Pressure from heavy workload has been compounded by the ongoing pension tax crisis - which has seen thousands of GPs reduce their working hours to avoid punitive charges that can mean doctors lose out financially for working longer. GPs remain in the dark over how - or whether - a promise from NHS England to pay off doctors' pension tax bills for 2019/20 will work for GPs.

Budget 2020

Next month's budget will reveal the outcome of a government review into the issue - but potential solutions aired publicly to date have fallen short of what the BMA believes is needed to solve the problem.

The latest data on the overall GP workforce show that the number of fully-qualified FTE GPs in England dropped by 277 in the year to December 2019.

Dr Kasaraneni said: 'This means patients waiting too long to be seen, perhaps getting increasingly unwell, as well as GPs stretching themselves more thinly, which in turn affects their health and wellbeing.

'The government insists it will increase the number of GPs by 6,000, and if it wants to realise this ambition – and learn from mistakes of the past – it must do an awful lot more to increase recruitment and retention.

'We also need urgent action on doctors’ pensions – with current rules punishing hardworking GPs and their hospital colleagues when they take on extra work.'

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