General practice in England has lost 1,500 doctors in five years

The GP workforce in England has dropped by almost 1,500 in the past five years, leaving the average doctor caring for 11% more patients, official data show.

Stethoscope on desk
GP workforce in decline (Photo: Aytug Can Sencar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The total number of fully-qualified full-time equivalent (FTE) GPs in England dropped from 29,320 to 27,848 over the five-year period from December 2016 to December 2021, figures from NHS Digital show. The 1,472 FTE GPs lost to the profession are equivalent to 5% of the total in December 2016.

Over the same period, the number of patients registered with GPs surged by around 3.3m - leaving the average GP caring for 11% more patients now compared with half a decade ago.

The latest data - which reveal the loss of another 14 FTE GPs between November and December 2021 alone - provide fresh insight into the intense pressure facing general practice, as GP numbers continue to fall at a time when the profession has been managing heavy demand linked to the record NHS waiting list and an unprecedented COVID-19 vaccination campaign.

GP workforce

BMA GP committee chair Dr Farah Jameel said the figures 'paint a dark picture' about the state of the general practice workforce - and warned that for many GPs the job was no longer 'safe, sustainable or possible'. She called for urgent reform to build a long-term, fully-funded workforce strategy.

'For those still working in the service, the slow but steady haemorrhaging of staff means that current pressures become even more acute,' Dr Jameel warned.

'As the number of GPs goes down and patient numbers go up, each remaining GP takes on significantly more responsibility for yet more and more patients.'

'These figures paint a dark picture; they are a culmination of the detrimental impact that working in an over-stretched, under-resourced NHS is having on GPs across the country. Family doctors, exhausted and disenchanted, feel as though they have no choice but to leave a profession they love because of chronic pressures now made worse by the pandemic.'

Workload rising

The latest workforce data come after GPonline reported last month that daily patient contacts per GP were running at around 84% above the level considered safe by the BMA.

Polling by the GMC published last December found that more than half of GPs were struggling with unsustainable workload.

Recent polling by the BMA found that 60% of GPs were currently suffering from stress, burnout, or other mental health conditions relating to or made worse by their work or study - while seven in 10 said  workforce shortages were pushing them to consider leaving the NHS.

Dr Jameel added: 'The government has repeatedly argued that the number of doctors is growing, but this isn’t the reality for general practice, and it begs the question: how many more have to go before something is finally done about it? Our NHS is the people who work in it, and without them, the entire system and provision of patient care is under threat.'

The government and NHS England have claimed that the GP workforce is growing - but citing figures that include trainee GPs who are not able to practise independently. Recruitment of GP trainees has risen sharply recently, with records broken in successive years.

The figures quoted above for fully qualified FTE GPs do not include trainees. The number of trainees in general practice rose from 5,625 in December 2016 to 8,343 in December 2021, a 48% increase.

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