Across all 470 GPs who took part in the latest GPonline opinion poll, 71% said patients were waiting longer now for appointments than a year ago. Among the 139 GP partners who responded, 74% said waits had increased.
Just 1.4% of GP partners and 3% of all GPs said waiting times for GP appointments at their surgeries had decreased in the past 12 months, while around a quarter of GPs reported no change.
The findings reflect GPs’ growing struggle to keep waiting times to a minimum as increasing demand for consultations and a dwindling full-time equivalent (FTE) GP workforce add to pressure on practices.
Practices delivered a record 30.8m appointments in October 2019, but official NHS data also confirm that the proportion of appointments delivered within a week of booking is falling.
GPs responding to the survey highlighted a lack of available staff a a key factor behind increasing waits, with many saying their practices lacked the capacity to meet demand.
One GP said: ‘We have gone from being a well-staffed practice to an inadequately staffed one - for both nurses and doctors. Our patients have gone from being relatively "lucky" when it comes to getting an appointment to what seems to be the average for a lot of practices these days - having to wait at least three weeks for a routine GP appointment and usually having a very slim chance of getting an on-the-day appointment.’
Another said a lack of investment in general practice and poor GP retention were contributing to growing waiting times. ‘Lack of GP numbers is the main issue. There are not enough incentives for staying or going into the profession, plenty of workload pressures above our shoulders, and not to mention the issues with pensions.’
One GP said: ‘I cannot do any more in a working day… I'm simply trying to stay safe & practise good quality medicine despite these pressures over which I have no influence.’
An increase in demand for appointments was also linked to longer waiting times - with some GPs calling for more work - and NHS investment - to encourage self care.
BMA GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey said: ‘We know that many patients are waiting too long for treatment and, as these figures show, the situation is not improving.
‘Overworked GPs are doing their best to keep waiting times down and the latest NHS figures show family doctors are now delivering the highest number of appointments since modern records began. However, the current workload pressures are clearly not sustainable.
‘GP numbers continue to fall and so changes must be made to stop experienced doctors leaving the profession and to encourage more young doctors to train as GPs.
‘Any new government must commit to making general practice a more attractive career choice by tackling rising workloads, punitive pension taxation and burdensome bureaucracy otherwise these worrying trends will continue to worsen.’
GPonline reported last month that the FTE, fully-qualified GP workforce in England fell by 340 over the year to September 2019 - a drop of around 1.2%. In September 2019 there were 28,315 FTE, fully-qualified GPs in England, according to NHS Digital figures, compared with 28,654 a year earlier.
The main political parties have promised to boost GP numbers and access to appointments in the run-up to the 12 December general election.
Evidence shows that practices are increasingly using other healthcare staff to deliver appointments within general practice - with non-GPs providing 5.2% more direct patient care in the year to September 2019.