Patient safety fears as vast majority of GPs predict NHS winter crisis

More than nine in 10 GPs think the NHS will struggle to cope this winter and that patients will be put at risk, a GPonline survey has revealed.

NHS winter crisis fears (Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
NHS winter crisis fears (Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

A total of 94% of 480 GPs who completed the latest GPonline opinion poll said the health service would struggle to cope this winter, with 92% warning that patients would be put at risk.

Among GP partners a slightly higher proportion of respondents were concerned about the impact of winter - with 96% saying the NHS would struggle and the same proportion concerned that patients would be put at risk.

The figures follow a BMA warning that the NHS is heading for its worst winter on record - after the NHS failed to see the usual drop-off in pressure through summer and with NHS capacity significantly undermined by doctors reducing their working hours to avoid pension tax penalties.

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Clinicians taking part in the survey identified staff shortages and increasing patient demand as two of the main issues that would intensify problems. With practices finding it hard to recruit GPs, GP partners said they had hired alternative primary care staff to fill the void.

Meanwhile, others said they had cancelled minor surgery appointments to free up space, while many spoke about their work promoting flu vaccinations.

One GP said: ‘We are actively ensuring eligible patients have their flu vaccine, doing extra home visits to complete this. However demand is already high and those who shout the loudest get seen rather than those with greatest need.’

Many GPs responding to the survey expressed frustration that little had been done by the government in preparation for winter, saying it was a case of 'groundhog day'.

Waiting times

‘It's the same every year… unwell people waiting hours to be seen, GP appointments fully booked by 9am, more and more people asking for home visits when there aren't enough GPs,' one GP said.

‘Nothing changes, nobody learns from the previous year. Many [clinicians] are doing overtime, going that extra mile as [an act of] good will every year even though it is unsafe. Managers think [because] they coped last year they will cope again this year.’

One GP said winter pressures had contributed to their decision to quit general practice, with many saying there was 'no slack' in the system.

‘I am not going to work in general practice very much. The risks are too high, the shame of not being able to do a proper job is too great. I am leaving clinical practice in 2020 and changing career. It will be a relief,’ said one doctor.

GP workload

BMA GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey said: 'NHS staff are already working flat out to provide safe, high-quality patient care, so it’s not surprising that 94% of GPs think the health service will struggle in the coming months when more people tend fall ill and need to visit their local surgery.

'Recent BMA analysis also showed that more than 1m patients could experience waits of over four hours at emergency departments this winter, which is likely to have a knock-on effect for GP practices and their teams, heightening patient demand and further exhausting family doctors.

'We have heard plenty of election promises in recent days, but one thing remains clear: whatever the next government, its absolute priority must be the funding of the NHS to ensure rising patient demand – which is now felt all year round - is met quickly, effectively, and above all, safely.'

GPonline revealed last month that practice workload had increased significantly in the first half of the current financial year, with practices delivering 2.7m more appointments than in the same six-month period a year earlier.

In an attempt to ease pressures on the NHS this winter, the government announced last week it would pay doctors' pension tax to try and persuade more clinicians to take on extra work.

NHS England has said measures to reduce pressure on the NHS this winter include increasing public flu vaccination levels, education campaigns to help people stay well and choose the right services, and increasing access to NHS 111 service. NHS England added it was providing targeted support for local services through access to senior clinicians who would help manage any emerging issues over the winter period.

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