Meeting the government's target of increasing the GP workforce by 5,000 by 2020 could prevent almost 600 premature deaths a year, the findings suggest.
The number of GPs available in an area has a small but notable influence on premature mortality rates, University of Leicester researchers concluded, after analysing data on the majority of GP practices in England.
A greater number of GPs per 1,000 population was associated with lower premature mortality, defined as death under 75, the study showed.
Boosting the number of GPs would therefore bring about ‘worthwhile reductions in mortality’, they said.
Bolstering the GP workforce to provide an increase of one GP per 1,000 patients could save around 6,738 lives in one year. An increase of 0.16 GPs per 1,000 patients could prevent 1,000 premature deaths.
The BMJ Open study incorporated data on practice population, GP workforce and QOF fulfilment from over 7,800 of the 8,200 practices in the country. Those excluded had incomplete sets of data.
The results also suggested that practices with higher prevalence of diabetes, more smokers and greater deprivation had higher levels of premature mortality.
In less deprived practices, continuity of care was also negatively associated with mortality.
‘The finding on numbers of GPs supports the case that general practice in England lacks capacity to meet demand,’ the researchers warned. ‘Levels of detection of hypertension have been shown to be associated with the supply of GPs and patient access.
‘An increase in the numbers of GPs is required, therefore, not only to improve the convenience of access, but also to improve population health. If steps are taken to increase capacity, a longitudinal study of premature mortality should be undertaken to monitor the impact.’
Lead author Professor Richard Baker added: ‘The findings show the importance of population characteristics such as deprivation, but also show associations between general practice characteristics and mortality.
‘Better detection of hypertension was associated with lower mortality, and more general practitioners per 1,000-patient population were associated with lower mortality. Although the study only demonstrates associations, it supports the case for strengthening general practice.’