GP appointments hit new high as face-to-face contacts surge

GP practice appointments rose in September to the highest total since five months before the COVID-19 pandemic, with face-to-face contacts accounting for a higher proportion than at any time since March 2020.

GP appointments surge (Photo: mtreasure/Getty Images)
GP appointments surge (Photo: mtreasure/Getty Images)

GP practices delivered a total of 28.7m appointments in September 2021 - 8.5% more than the figure for the same month in 2019, and the highest figure recorded for a single month since October 2019. Once COVID-19 appointments are factored in, total appointments are up by 10.6% compared with September 2019.

Practices reported more than 17.3m face-to-face contacts with patients, making up 61% of all appointments - the highest proportion since the UK first went into lockdown in March 2020.

The 17.3m total for face-to-face contacts is the highest figure recorded since February 2020 - and was delivered alongside more than 10m telephone appointments, around three times the average monthly figure recorded in the 11 months from April 2019 to February 2020. Total face-to-face appointments were up 3.6m compared with the previous month, the figures from NHS Digital show.

GP appointments

The figures reflect the intense pressure on general practice as the UK heads into a winter that CMO Professor Chris Whitty has predicted will be 'exceptionally difficult' for the health service.

They follow GPonline analysis of RCGP data, which found that GP workload intensified sharply in the final two weeks of September, with practices delivering 6% more consultations and a third more clinical administrative work than in the same period in 2019.

The latest evidence of soaring workload and rising face-to-face appointments in general practice comes after GP leaders condemned measures set out earlier this month by the government in an access plan and 'support package' for the profession.

Responding to the latest workforce figures, BMA GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey said: 'The enormous jump in appointments in general practice in the last month, up by 4.7m, is a clear sign that GPs are working harder than ever to see as many patients as possible and clear the backlog.

GP workforce

'This is a testament to the dedication of GPs and practice staff who are going above and beyond to deliver care in exceptionally difficult circumstances, amid a persistent decline in the number of GPs and the implications of COVID-19 safety measures on how care can be delivered.

'Notably, the number of face-to-face GP appointments has also risen by a quarter over the last month, making up almost two thirds of all appointments, which should equivocally put to bed the demoralising and inaccurate narrative that GPs are no longer seeing patients in person.'

The BMA's GP committee voted unanimously last week to reject a £250m winter access fund that will partly fund additional staffing in primary care, but comes with demands for a rise in total appointments and increased face-to-face access - and is preparing the ground for a ballot over industrial action.

The committee has called the plans a 'bullying charter' that fails to address pressures on general practice and has advised practices to cease all non-GMS work and apply to close practice lists.

Dr Vautrey said last week: 'All efforts to persuade the government to introduce a workable plan that will bring immediate and longer-term improvement for doctors and their patients, have so far come to nought.

'The government has completely ignored our requests for a reduction in bureaucracy to allow us to focus more on patient care, and we are therefore encouraging doctors to withdraw from this bureaucracy themselves.

'The ultimate outcome should be to end the current crisis in general practice, to properly support practices to to manage their workload pressure, including safely getting through the backlog of care caused by the pandemic and deliver a safe service to patients, allowing time to create an agreed long-term plan to make general practice sustainable for the future.'

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