Exclusive: Majority of GP practices report cuts to public health funding

More than three quarters of GP partners have experienced a reduction in funding for public health services over the past year, a GPonline survey has found - with smoking cessation the worst-hit service.

Smoking cessation services among worst-hit by cuts (Photo: JH Lancy)
Smoking cessation services among worst-hit by cuts (Photo: JH Lancy)

A total of 77% of 250 GP partners who responded to the survey reported that funding had been withdrawn or reduced for at least one public health service their practice provides. Smoking cessation, sexual health and weight management services were among those most affected, GPs said.

The findings come after a BMA report last month highlighted ‘substantial cuts’ to funding for key public health services in many areas and warned that ‘changes to public health spending in local areas do not reflect the needs of local populations’.

The GPonline survey asked GPs about public health services provided by their practices that had seen funding reduced or withdrawn in the past 12 months. Smoking cessation services were the worst-affected, with 40% of partners reporting cuts.

Sexual health services were highlighted by 34% of respondents as an area that had faced cuts, while 30% said weight management services had been targeted.

Meanwhile, 29% said services for alcohol and substance misuse had experienced cuts, while nearly one in five GPs said services such as LARC fitting and NHS health checks had been affected.

Budget pressure

GPC chair Dr Richard Vautrey told GPonline: ‘We are very concerned at the serious impact of local authorities' budget pressures which are leading to big public health service cuts. Practices are all too often left picking up the pieces and patients are losing the option of access to important services in their area.

‘Ultimately these short-sighted cuts costs the NHS in the long run as we don't properly invest in prevention and health promotion. It's another serious consequence of the fragmentation caused by the Health and Social Care Act’.

Funding to deliver public health services across England has been significantly reduced over recent years and, according to the BMA, planned cuts to the public health grants for local authorities will average 3.9% a year to 2020/21.

The BMA’s report concludes that ‘services and interventions vital for improving population health are not being implemented or are being cut back, risking the future sustainability of the NHS’.

Public health funding

Local Government Association community wellbeing board chair councillor Izzi Seccombe said: 'These findings are not unexpected. Despite budget reductions, councils are determined to maintain vital public health services to help people live longer, healthier and happier lives, but the reality is that many local authorities are having to make difficult decisions on these key services, including stopping them altogether.

'Councils are having to carefully consider how best they can spend their public health funding, which has been reduced by £600m from 2015/16 to 2019/20 by central government, to maximise cost effectiveness and improve health outcomes.'

Cllr Seccombe said 'early intervention and prevention work by councils' on teenage pregnancy, child obesity, physical inactivity, sexually transmitted infections and substance misuse were vital services that improved public health and could ease pressure on the NHS and social care.' She called for public health funding cuts to be reversed.

A DHSC spokeswoman said: 'We have a strong track record on public health – smoking levels are at an all-time low, more people than ever are being tested for sexually transmitted infections and the number of people infected continues to fall.

'Local authorities are best placed to make choices for their community, which is why we are investing more than £16bn in local government public health services over the current spending period.'

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