General practice is losing nearly 100 GP partners a month

Over the three months to June 2019, the number of GPs in partnership roles in England fell by 287 - a 1.3% reduction in just over 90 days.

GP consultation (Photo: sturti/Getty Images)
GP consultation (Photo: sturti/Getty Images)

Over the year from June 2018 to June 2019, the number of GPs in partnership roles in England fell by 791 - a 3.6% reduction, figures from NHS Digital show.

These are 'headcount' statistics - the actual number of GPs in these roles. Looking at full-time equivalent (FTE) workforce data, which considers how many hours doctors work and converts them into the number of full-time staff they are equivalent to, the picture is significantly worse.

The loss of FTE GP partners over the past three months alone was 422 - a staggering 2.2% of the partner workforce. Over the past year, 1,038 FTE partners were lost - a 5.3% reduction.

Going back further to September 2015 - the starting point from which then-health secretary Jeremy Hunt made his ill-fated pledge to deliver an extra 5,000 full-time equivalent (FTE) GPs - the trend is equally clear.

In June 2019 there were 21,304 GP partners in England in headcount terms - down 3,217 (13%) from the September 2015 figure of 24,521.

Switching to FTE, in September 2015 there were 21,688 GP partners - 3,177 more than the 18,511 total for June 2019.

BMA GP committee executive team member Dr Krishna Kasaraneni said rising workload and erosion of pay over the past decade had left partners' morale in tatters.

Pay erosion

'We have lost almost 600 FTE GPs in the last year and 1,000 FTE partners,' Dr Kasaraneni told GPonline.

'With fewer colleagues, remaining GPs - and in particular partners – are left to bear the increased workload, pushing themselves to the physical and emotional brink. It’s no wonder then – when you combine real-terms pay erosion, punitive pension rules and the stresses of running a practice – that we’re losing experienced partners.

'The partnership model is the lifeblood of general practice and needs support to survive. We hope that PCNs will go some way to alleviating workload and other pressures, but it is clear that more needs to be done to retain the valuable expertise of the workforce, including further resources to address issues with premises and an end to damaging pension legislation.'

Specialist medical accountant Andrew Pow from Mazars LLP said the decline in partners reflected 'demographics more than anything'.

Early retirement

'A significant proportion are aged 50-60 - a lot of practices are dominated by older GP partners. Many are going early into retirement as workload rises, because the job isn't enjoyable anymore.

'And they are not being replaced - younger GPs often don't even want salaried roles and prefer to work as locums.'

In an exclusive interview with GPonline this week RCGP chair-elect Professor Martin Marshall warned that the decline in numbers of GP partners will continue for some time.

However, he predicted it would then stabilise and the partnership model would survive - in part because NHS policymakers have begun to recognise its benefits - as long as key recommendations from the GP partnership review published earlier this year were implemented.

Younger doctors, he said, are interested in partnership roles - although not, perhaps, as early in their careers as previous generations.

A DHSC spokesperson said this week: 'GPs are the bedrock of the NHS and we’re backing them with an extra £4.5bn a year by 2023/24. Last year a record 3,473 doctors were recruited into GP training and we’re funding 20,000 more staff in GP practices.'

The spokesperson also highlighted proposals to allow doctors to reduce their risk of facing large pension tax bills by reducing their pension contributions as a factor that could allow doctors to 'spend more time with their patients'.

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