The BMA hit out at changes in the way data is now collected, which it said had been 'designed to obscure the reality' of what is happening on the ground and 'gaslight' the profession.
The latest data from NHS Digital show that at the end of June 2021 there were 27,752 full-time equivalent (FTE) fully-qualified GPs in England – an increase of 332, or 1.2%, on the 27,420 that were in post at the same time a year ago.
In headcount terms the figures show at the end of June this year there were 37,293 GPs in post, compared with 36,275 12 months earlier – an increase of 2.8%.
However, NHS Digital has introduced what it called 'significant methodological changes' in the way it collects information, which mean it has had to revise all the workforce data back to September 2015 when it first began monitoring GP numbers.
Data collection changes
The change in methodology means that the figures now suggest that there are just 363 fewer FTE fully-qualified GPs in post in June 2021 compared with September 2015. The last set of data, which GPonline reported on in May 2021 and which used the previous methodology, suggested at that point the FTE GP workforce was 1,307 below the figure for September 2015.
BMA GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey, said: 'The methodology NHS Digital is now using no longer includes estimated data to accommodate for the small proportion of practices that upload no or only partial workforce figures each quarter. As a result, this makes it look like the decrease in the GP workforce is less than the actual reality shown across previous datasets.
‘The new way of collecting the data suggests that the fully-qualified FTE GP workforce has shrunk by 363 since September 2015 - but we know that in September 2015 only 88% of practices provided data, compared to almost 100% in today’s dataset.
‘This means that the number of doctors we’ve lost over that period is significantly higher than what is being presented, and the data therefore does not accurately depict the extent of the staffing crisis in general practice.
‘It’s clear that the change in methodology was designed to obscure the reality; the data release is now less accurate and simply doesn’t capture what we know to be happening on the ground.
‘The workforce crisis has been at the centre of GP pressures for over a decade, so to play down the reality of it is not only incredibly frustrating, but also insulting to the thousands of GPs who experience the impact that workforce shortages are having on their profession, and patients, every day.’
'Gaslighting' the profession
Dr Vautrey said it would be impossible to tackle the workfore crisis unless ‘the extent of the problem’ was properly understood and called on NHS Digital to revert to its ‘original methodology as a matter of urgency’.
‘We’re already losing talented, experienced GPs to the workforce crisis – attempting to gaslight them into believing it’s not real is only going to drive more away,’ he added.
The BMA also provided testimonials from GPs across the country to reveal the extent of workforce challenges facing teams. A GP from the southwest, said: ‘I have just got home from another 13-hour day.
‘There is a vicious cycle happening with our poor workforce numbers nationally. Every time a GP reduces their hours or quits, or a post is unfilled, the strain on the remaining GPs increases. That leads to more GPs leaving. We can't keep doing this. So many of us are at breaking point.’
A GP from the north added: ‘The government says that there are more staff working in primary care, funded through the Additional Roles Reimbursement Scheme – this may be true, but they are not reducing the work on GPs; if anything they are only assisting with otherwise unmet need.’
A spokesperson for NHS Digital, said: 'NHS Digital is the trusted data provider for the NHS in England. We publish data in a clear and impartial way to provide the best possible insights to improve health and care services.
'We have worked in close partnership with stakeholders in order to refine our methodology for the GP workforce statistics. This has included removing historic estimates of workforce numbers to improve accuracy.
'We are committed to continuously improving our data services and to supporting GP practices to provide high-quality, reliable data to further enhance the completeness of the GP workforce statistics.'