Reliance on doctors aged over 55 rose by more than three percentage points over the past three and a half years, according to a breakdown by age of full-time equivalent (FTE), fully-qualified GPs in permanent roles in England.
Fully-qualified GPs in permanent roles - a category that excludes registrars and locums - make up more than 95% of the FTE workforce picked up in national data from NHS Digital.
In September 2015, 20.3% of the permanent, fully-qualified FTE GP workforce was aged 55 or over. By March 2019, 23.6% of GPs in this category were aged 55 or over, analysis by GPonline shows.
Ageing GP workforce
The findings show that general practice has become increasingly reliant on older GPs at a time when evidence suggests doctors are more likely than ever to take early retirement.
Last year, the University of Manchester's national GP worklife survey found that record numbers of GPs were planning to retire within five years. It found that among GPs aged over 50 - who make up two in five of the FTE workforce in permanent roles - a staggering 62% planned to quit inside five years.
BMA GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey warned that the figures showed numbers of doctors coming through to replace existing GPs were 'insufficient'.
The Leeds GP said: 'While it's positive that the numbers of GPs in training are increasing, the reality is that this remains insufficient to replace not only those who have left or reduced their clinical commitment, but also those who, based on these figures, could retire soon.
'We know from repeated surveys that large numbers of GPs intend to retire in the next five years, and as the Interim NHS Peoples Plan shows there is also a major recruitment and retention problem for practice nurses too.
'Taken together this is causing huge workload pressures on many practices and impacting patients' ability to get a timely appointment. The government needs to do more to tackle this, not least with a much more urgent approach to offering greater pension flexibilities and addressing the impact of the annual allowance tax charges.'
GPonline reported last week that England lost 441 fully-qualified GPs over the 12 months to March 2018. The proportion of GPs working full time has also fallen sharply over the three-and-a-half-year period from September 2015 to March 2019.
September 2015 marked the starting point from which former health secretary Jeremy Hunt promised to increase the FTE GP workforce by 5,000 by 2020/21. His successor Matt Hancock has maintained the pledge but dropped the deadline - promising 5,000 more FTE GPs 'as soon as possible'.
NHS England interim director of primary care Dr Nikki Kanani said last week that there were 'encouraging signs' for GP numbers, with increases in FTE fully-qualified GP numbers over the past quarter and a 'significant increase in the number of other health professionals such as nurses, pharmacists and physicians that work alongside GPs'.
She added: 'Recruiting, retaining and supporting more doctors into practice remains an absolute priority for us.'
The RCGP warned last year that 2.5m patients in England could see their practice close in the next five years because more than 750 GP practices had over three quarters of their GPs aged over 55.