GPonline reported last week that the CQC had placed the Sutherland Lodge practice in Chelmsford in special measures after rating it inadequate. The rating marked a sharp decline for a practice that was rated outstanding when Virgin Care took it over in July 2016 on a 10-year APMS deal worth more than the previous partners' PMS contract.
Analysis by GPonline of NHS Digital data on patients registered with GP practices show that patient numbers at Sutherland Lodge have fallen by 5% since Virgin Care's contract began - dropping by 606 to 11,070 at the start of May 2018. Measured from three months before the takeover, the practice's patient list has fallen by 7% - contrasting with a 2% increase in patient numbers across the Mid Essex CCG area as a whole.
North Essex LMC vice chair Dr Hannah Casey said that nearby practices had seen a 'big influx' of patients who had left Sutherland Lodge - piling additional strain on a workforce that is already struggling with low GP numbers.
NHS England has confirmed that neighbouring practices in Chelmsford have been forced to close their lists to ease pressure. Local NHS bosses defended the decision to award the contract to Virgin, and said 'contractual action' had been taken to force Virgin Care to make improvements.
Dr Casey said she had locumed at a nearby practice and that several in the area had been affected by an influx of patients from Sutherland Lodge. 'I see a lot of patients who have left Sutherland Lodge,' she said. 'Some neighbouring practices have their lists closed because they can't cope with the patients they have already.
'In Essex we have the lowest GP-patient ratio in the country - we are already struggling. There is general migration, but when there is a big influx from a neighbouring practice that has a big impact and there is no ability to recruit to try and solve those problems.'
Dr Casey said a mix of older and younger patients had moved - some with complex needs - and that practices were concerned that waiting times for appointments would rise unless they closed their lists.
She hit out at the 'short-sighted' decision to impose £400,000 PMS funding cuts that had driven out the previous partners and led to the Virgin Care takeover on a contract that NHS England has said cost 14% more.
'All the practices locally were very sad,' Dr Casey said. 'It was a real hit to morale, that this big practice that had helped support other practices had almost been knocked over overnight, because of a withdrawal of funding.'
Rachel Webb, locality director for NHS England Midlands and East (East) said that other practices affected by reductions in PMS funding in the area 'continue to deliver high quality primary care services' and that four out of five were rated good or outstanding.
She said NHS England was 'disappointed with the recent CQC rating of inadequate for Sutherland Lodge', but added that 'significant improvements have already been made since the first CQC inspection in December 2017'.
'NHS England and Mid Essex CCG’s joint primary care commissioning committee have taken appropriate contractual action in relation to the relevant terms of the APMS contract for Sutherland Lodge Surgery,' she said. This contractual action incentivises and legally requires issues to be remedied by Virgin Care Services Ltd and enables further contractual action if appropriate.
'NHS England is aware that some GP practices in Chelmsford have temporarily closed their lists to new patients. We are monitoring this situation closely.
'We would like to reassure patients that improvements are being made at Sutherland Lodge Surgery and that there is no need to move to another GP practice. However, anyone that would like to find out more about primary care services in their area can do so by visiting www.nhs.uk.'
A spokesman for Sutherland Lodge Surgery said: 'We’re doing everything we can to rapidly improve the service at Sutherland Lodge, and inspectors acknowledged the improvements we had already made, when they visited just a few weeks after their original inspection, in January. While our improvement work continues, we have already seen a reduction in complaints, and feedback from patients and the PPG is very positive about the changes we’ve already made and our plans.
'We look forward to welcoming inspectors back to the practice to see, and confirm, the improvements we have made in the coming months and in the meantime we are doing all we can to reassure patients.'