One in 10 GP practices at risk of closure due to ageing workforce

One in 10 GP practices in England could face closure in the next few years because most of their doctors are aged over 55, GPonline can reveal.

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Practices at risk of closure (Photo: Christophe Coat/EyeEm/Getty Images)

A total of 640 GP practices across England rely on a GP workforce two thirds or more of which is aged over 55, analysis of data from NHS Digital by GPonline shows.

These practices - responsible for a patient population of around 3.5m - make up nearly one in 10 of the total 6,513 practices listed across England in data for January 2022. At 411 of these practices, three quarters or more of GPs are aged 55 or over.

The potential loss of a tenth of GP practices in England within the coming years could have a devastating impact on patient care at a time when demand for general practice services is at an all-time high and as the NHS faces a colossal backlog of care in the wake of two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Map: Where are practices at risk from an ageing GP workforce?

In the worst-affected CCG areas, as many as a third of practices are at risk from the ageing GP workforce - and in nine of England's 106 CCGs more than a fifth of practices are at risk.

Southend CCG, in Essex, has the highest proportion of practices at risk - with 35% of its 26 practices reliant on a GP workforce two thirds or more of which is aged over 55.

Hull CCG, meanwhile, has the second highest proportion of GP practices at risk from an ageing workforce, at 31% - a major threat in an area identified as England's most underdoctored CCG in previous analysis by GPonline.

Evidence that practices heavily reliant on GPs aged over 55 are at risk is overwhelming. A BMA pensions expert told MPs last week that 55 has become 'the normal age' for doctors to retire - and government evidence to the Doctors and Dentists Review Body (DDRB) earlier this year confirmed a sharp rise in GPs taking early retirement.

Ageing GP workforce

Around three in five of all GP members of the 1995 NHS Pension scheme who claimed their pension for the first time in 2020/21 did so on a voluntary early retirement basis - before the standard age of 60 - analysis by the NHS Business Services Authority shows.

BMA polling has also suggested that more than a third of GPs plan to retire early after working through the COVID-19 pandemic - which saw practices deliver an unprecedented 367m appointments last year on top of tens of millions of vaccinations.

The figures come after BMA GP committee England deputy chair Dr Kieran Sharrock said at the launch of a campaign to 'rebuild general practice', that the scale of the 'workforce exodus from general practice' in the recent years was frightening.

General practice has lost more than 1,500 fully-qualified full-time equivalent GPs in the past five years alone - and the government has said plans to boost the workforce are not on track.

BMA pensions committee chair Dr Vishal Sharma told MPs last week: 'We have a lot of people retiring at age 55, which is sort of the normal age and we suspect that around 10% of the senior medical workforce will retire in the next 18 months, with the biggest reason being pensions.'

He said this claim was backed up by polling from both the BMA and the Royal College of Physicians, adding: 'We have got an ageing workforce and one of the things that really worries me is that...without some very firm, decisive action we're going to have a workforce crisis like we've never seen and it'll be too late at that point.'

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