Between 2012 and 2018, the number of doctors on the GMC's GP register grew by 4% to 60,279 according to the GMC’s annual The state of medical education and practice in the UK (SoMEP) report - compared with an 11% rise to 75,788 doctors on the specialist register.
The bulk of the increase in GP numbers UK-wide came in England, which saw a 6.8% increase over the six-year period, while numbers grew slightly in Scotland and Northern Ireland and fell slightly in Wales.
But the report reveals huge regional variation in changes to numbers of doctors on the GP register over the period across England. In the East Midlands, the number of doctors on the GP register rose from 3,516 in 2012 to 4,374 in 2018 - a 24% increase - while the East of England region saw a 6% drop in family doctors, from 4,884 to 4,606.
In London, the number of GPs increased by 13% to 8,740 - similar to a 14% rise in the North West region. The West Midlands was one of two regions to see its workforce drop - losing 73 GPs, roughly 2% of its total.
The GMC report said GP numbers rising slower than the medical workforce in hospitals was 'significant' and called for urgent action to support doctors facing rising pressure.
GPC chair Dr Richard Vautrey said: ‘These workforce figures are in line with the last 12 years that has seen the funding for general practice as a proportion of overall NHS investment fall.’
He added that although investment had ‘recently started to recover’ it remained ‘well short of what is needed to sustain practices and respond to patients' growing needs’. Dr Vautrey said: ‘This has meant that the NHS has continued to invest the vast majority of its funding in hospitals and this is reflected in the increase in their workforce.’
The GMC report said growth in GP numbers falling behind hospital doctors was 'significant given the shortages of GPs generally and the fact that so many GPs intend to retire or go part time'.
It added: 'Urgent action is needed to make sure doctors are supported so they don’t leave just because the pressures on the system make their role as a doctor feel untenable.’
The report found that a quarter of 700 doctors surveyed had reduced their hours within the past two years as a direct result of pressure at work. This echoes findings published by the RCGP earlier this week showing that one in three GPs were planning to quit in the next five years.
However, the SoMEP report also highlights the 10% rise in doctors entering GP training in general practice since 2012, compared with a 1% increase in doctors in training overall.
This comes less than two months after it was announced by Health Education England (HEE) that a record 3,473 GP trainees had been recruited in 2018 - 10% above the number recruited last year and 7% above the target for this year.
Primary care investment
NHS England pledged to boost the GP workforce by 5,000 as part of the GP Forward View (GPFV) in 2016, and a further commitment to primary care is expected as part of the long-term plan, which is expected to be published in coming weeks.
Dr Vautrey added: ‘These words are yet to change the reality that these GMC figures show, which is why we continue to call for a much more significant change in funding for general practice and community services which would ultimately benefit the whole NHS.’
GMC chair Professor Sir Terence Stephenson said: ‘There are different challenges in each of the four countries of the UK but the NHS is at a critical juncture; without a long-term UK-wide plan to ensure it has a workforce with the right skills in the right places and without the right support, doctors will come under even greater strain.’