NHS increasingly reliant on GPs aged over 55 as workforce crisis grows

General practice is becoming increasingly reliant on doctors aged over 55 at a time when early retirements in the profession have surged, GPonline analysis of official workforce data shows.

NHS reliance on GPs aged over 55 rising (Photo: SolStock/Getty Images)
NHS reliance on GPs aged over 55 rising (Photo: SolStock/Getty Images)

The findings highlight the impact of a steady reduction in overall GP numbers over recent years - despite government promises to boost the workforce - and underline the fragility of the profession at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has left the NHS facing unprecedented challenges.

The proportion of fully-qualified full-time equivalent (FTE) GPs aged over 55 rose to 23.3% in June 2020, according to workforce data published last week by NHS Digital. This is a sharp rise compared with the 20% figure for September 2015, when former health secretary Jeremy Hunt made his ill-fated pledge to add 5,000 GPs to the workforce by 2020.

Among GP partners, meanwhile, the proportion of the FTE workforce aged over 55 has now risen beyond 30% for the first time, reaching 30.1% in June this year. This figure has also risen sharply in the past five years - up from 24.4% in September 2015 - as overall numbers of partners continue to plummet.

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Among fully-qualified GPs in permanent roles - a figure that excludes locums and registrars - 23.6% are now over 55, compared with 20.3% in September 2015.

The figures, from GPonline analysis of the latest GP workforce data, reveal how the slump in the overall workforce has led to a growing reliance on older doctors in general practice.

The latest official data show that the overall GP workforce has now fallen to its lowest point at any time since Mr Hunt's promise to boost GP numbers - despite his successor Matt Hancock promising last year to increase FTE GP numbers by 6,000 by 2024/25.

GP trainee recruitment has hit record levels in each of the past three years - but existing GP numbers remain in freefall as the profession waits for the new cohort to come through.

Ageing GP workforce

Meanwhile, the second half of the last decade saw a significant rise in GPs taking early retirement - suggesting that many of the doctors in older age groups whose contribution and experience remains vital may not be prepared to remain for long.

Over the five-year period from 2014/15 to 2018/19 nearly 3,400 GPs took voluntary early retirement - double the around 1,700 who retired early over the five-year period from 2007/8 to 2011/12.

Heavy reliance on older GPs has also left some of England's most under-doctored areas struggling to cope with pressure during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Analysis by GPonline has shown that some parts of England with the highest numbers of patients per GP also have high proportions of doctors aged over 55 and from BAME groups - suggesting many may be ruled out of delivering face-to-face care after COVID-19 risk assessments.

BMA GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey said last month that underfunding and soaring pressure on GPs was forcing many to retire early.

'The NHS has faced significant underfunding with doctors facing an unsustainable increase in workload in the last couple of decades, exacerbated by workplace issues including more bureaucracy and over-regulation,' he said.

'This has had an enormous impact on many doctors’ well-being and, therefore, their view on the longevity of their careers. As we know, there have also been punitive pension rules that have impacted negatively on their incomes.'

The Leeds GP added: ‘While GP recruitment is improving, the focus must now be on retaining experienced GPs to ensure the general practice workforce expands – and this must be addressed urgently.’

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