Findings from the latest GP worklife survey by the University of Manchester show that 33% of GPs are likely to quit direct patient care within five years.
Among GPs aged over 50 the figure rises to 61%, while among GPs aged under 50, 16% plan to quit within five years - a record high in the under-50 age group for the biannual poll running since 1999.
The findings suggest that of the 37,123 headcount fully qualified GPs in England recorded in NHS Digital data for February, around 12,250 could be lost to the profession within five years.
In terms of the full-time equivalent (FTE) fully qualified workforce, the loss of 33% of GPs would mean 9,174 FTE GPs lost to the profession.
Even this lower figure is more than 50% above the total number of GPs the government has promised to add to the general practice workforce by 2024 - although health and social care secretary Sajid Javid admitted last year that it was 'not on track' to meet the target.
GP leaders warned that general practice was 'fighting a losing battle', with far more GPs leaving the profession than entering it despite record numbers in training - and called on the government to come forward and work with the profession to avoid a 'mass exodus'.
The number of FTE fully qualified GPs in England has fallen by more than 1,700 since the Conservatives promised in 2015 to increase the workforce by 5,000 - a promise upgraded in the party's 2019 manifesto to a pledge for 6,000 extra GPs by 2024.
The large numbers of GPs planning to quit the profession come after a 'statistically significant' drop in overall job satisfaction among GPs, according to the worklife survey. Average overall job satisfaction - measured on a seven-point scale from one (extremely dissatisfied) to seven (extremely satisfied), fell from 4.5 points in 2019 to 4.3 in 2021.
Only just over half of the 2,277 respondents (51%) said they were satisfied with their job overall, the survey found. Working hours were a major factor in dissatisfaction - with just 37.9% of respondents satisfied with their hours of work.
GP leaders said findings on working hours in the poll made clear that part-time working in general practice was 'anything but' - with average working hours across doctors working part- or full-time at 38.4 per week.
BMA England GP committee executive office Dr Richard Van Mellaerts said: 'The fact that 61% of GPs over 50 say they are likely to quit direct patient care within the next five years highlights the extent of the staffing crisis facing general practice. If these intentions come to fruition, this will represent a huge loss to the NHS and to patients of highly skilled and experienced GPs.
'GPs and their teams are exhausted from the pandemic, struggling with a toxic combination of escalating patient demand at the same time as the number of fully qualified, full-time GPs has fallen significantly. The number of GPs in England has fallen every year since the government first pledged to increase the GP workforce by 5,000 and this survey shows that more could be set to leave if the government does not take action.'
He urged the government to work with the profession to avoid 'a mass exodus of GPs, which will put patient care in serious jeopardy, all at a time when we need our health service more than ever before'.
RCGP chair Professor Martin Marshall said: 'General practice was under considerable strain before the pandemic, but the crisis has exacerbated this. These findings show a profession working under intense workload and workforce pressures, doing their best for patients in the most difficult of circumstances.
'It’s concerning to see any GP leaving the profession earlier than they planned, particularly in such high numbers, but it’s especially worrying to see so many family doctors planning to leave relatively early in their careers. This should be a wakeup call that we need to see robust plans implemented to retain highly-trained, experienced GPs in the workforce – and key to this will be tackling workload.'
He added: 'More GPs are in training than ever before – but when more are leaving the profession than entering it, we are fighting a losing battle. General practice is the bedrock of the health service, with GPs and our teams making the vast majority of NHS patient contacts and in turn alleviating pressures across the health service, but we need enough people to be working the profession to safely do this.'
Professor Kath Checkland, who led the study said: ‘The fact that 16% of GPs under the age of 50 are thinking about leaving their jobs is worrying, and suggests that work is still needed to ensure that general practice is sustainable for the long term.'
Numbers of GPs taking early retirement rose to a four-year high in 2020/21, according to figures published in government evidence to the Doctors and Dentists Review Body, which advises the government on pay.
A DHSC spokesperson said: 'We are working to support and grow the general practice workforce, address the reasons why doctors leave the profession, and encourage them to return to practice.
'We have invested £520m to expand GP capacity during the pandemic, on top of £1.5bn until 2024 and we are making 4,000 GP training places available each year.'
The government spokesperson said that in December 2021 'there were over 1,600 more doctors working in general practice compared to 2019' - although this figure includes GP trainees and does not reflect the fully-qualified workforce.