The findings, published just days after prime minister Theresa May confirmed that the annual NHS England budget would be increased by £20.5bn over the next five years, suggest that NHS leaders could target the extra cash at easing chronic pressure on primary care.
Both the RCGP and the BMA have warned that the profession is currently working in conditions that are unsafe both for clinicians and patients and have urged the prime minister to set out in detail how the funding settlement will be used to tackle the GP crisis.
The GPC has blamed 'fundamental problems' facing the profession - highlighted by factors including record numbers of practice closures, a fall of more than 1,300 full-time equivalent GPs, an exodus from partnership roles, heavy workload and widespread problems with burnout and stress - on a decade of underinvestment.
However, polling by the King's Fund reveals a clear consensus among NHS finance directors across CCGs and NHS trusts that services outside of hospital should be the health service's top priority for investment.
General practice was identified as a priority for increased funding by 79% of CCG finance directors, while 65% identified social care and 65% picked out community services. Among NHS trust finance leads, 67% identified social care as a priority, while 53% highlighted community services and 47% mental health services.
Although the NHS funding settlement offers less than the 4% annual real-terms increases that experts have said the health service needs, the King's Fund report says it 'does offer some relief for the current pressures on staff and services'.
But it warned: 'As always, there are some clouds circumscribed by this silver lining, not least the ongoing workforce shortages that will limit the impact of any new funding.' The report calls for 'realistic expectations of what services can deliver in return for this extra funding', pointing out that 'eight years of austerity have left the health and care system with considerable ground to make up'.
Meanwhile, the new funding does not kick in until April 2019, meaning the NHS faces another 'very challenging year' in 2018/19. Findings from the King's Fund polling show that around two in five finance directors across CCGs and NHS trusts expect to overspend their budgets this year, with almost 80% of CCG finance leads saying their organisation 'is considering extending the number of low-value treatments and prescriptions that will no longer be funded'.
King's Fund chief analyst and report author Siva Anandaciva said: ‘Policy-makers have long sought to provide more care in the community, closer to people’s homes, to improve patient care and reduce pressures on hospitals. These attempts have for the most part failed and hospitals remain full to capacity, while underinvestment in community services continues. Our survey suggests that finally delivering this vision should he at the heart of the forthcoming NHS 10-year plan and that additional funding for social care must be a top priority for the forthcoming spending review.
‘It is clear that the current NHS finance regime is broken, with huge deficits in some trusts and booming surpluses in others. The new funding settlement provides an opportunity to re-think the current system and to ensure that financial management in the NHS is proportionate, fair and effective.’