Patient surveys reveal 'drastic' decline in GP services, warns Labour

Patients' experience of GP services has becoming 'drastically worse' over the past five years, according to an analysis of patient survey data by the Labour party.

Labour shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth
Labour shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth

Analysis of data from the 2017 patient survey published last month and equivalent data from 2012 suggests that the proportion of patients unhappy with waiting times and booking for GP appointments has risen sharply since 2012.

A quarter of patients in the 2017 survey said they had to 'wait a bit too long' when making an appointment, and 9% said they had to wait 'far too long' - compared with just 7.7% of patients who said they had to 'wait too long' for an appointment in 2012.

One in five patients in 2017 said they had to wait until 'a week or more later' for an appointment with a GP or nurse after contacting their practice, compared with just 13% in the 2012 poll. A total of 13% of patients found the experience of booking an appointment fairly or very poor in 2017, compared with just 9% in 2012.

GP access

Telephone access to practices also looks to have deteriorated over the past five years, with 28% of patients now saying it is 'not very easy' or 'not at all easy' to get through to someone at their GP practice by telephone - up from 19% five years ago.

The finding means that more than 16m people now struggle to communicate via telephone with their GP practice.

The proportion of people who find it difficult to see their preferred GP is also rising, the analysis showed - with a third of patients almost or always able to see their preferred GP in 2017, compared with 42% in 2012.

Labour shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: 'This research exemplifies just how hard it is becoming to see a GP in Tory Britain, with patients’ overall experience of their GP services getting drastically worse.

'Overworked and underfunded GPs are struggling to cope with rising needs from patients. Across the country GPs and practice staff are working to keep the service running in the face of astonishing neglect from Theresa May and her ministers.'

GPC executive member Dr Gavin Ralston said: 'The worsening state of general practice is a direct result of years of underinvestment, as the failure to address rising patient demand has pushed services to breaking point and left GPs worryingly overstretched.

'The government must commit to their promises outlined in the Five Year Forward View and urgently address the recruitment and funding crisis in general practice in order to protect services and ensure that patients get the appropriate level of care they need and deserve.'

GP underfunding

RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard said: 'This analysis backs up the warnings that the college has been making for some time - that as a result of years of underinvestment in general practice, our patients are finding it increasingly difficult to make a GP appointment.

'Our own analysis of the GP Patient Survey found that patients will be unable to make an appointment with a GP or practice nurse on 100m occasions by 2022 if trends continue.

'This is despite GPs and our teams making more patient consultations a year that ever before - currently over 370m - to meet escalating patient demand. This is a clear risk to patient safety – and must be addressed as a matter of urgency.'

However, the college chair pointed out that patients 'can always access urgent GP care when they need to' via routine services and out-of-hours services.

Responding to findings that 40% of patients say Sunday opening would make it easier to see or speak to someone at their GP practice, up from 32% in 2012, Professor Stokes-Lampard warned that extended hours should not be introduced where there was little demand - pointing out that many practices had stopped extended hours because of a lack of interest from patients.

She added: 'With such scarce resources for our profession and a huge shortage of GPs at the moment, the government's focus must be on delivering more funding to offer our existing five-day service - and sufficient GPs and practice team members to deliver it.

A DH spokeswoman said: 'GPs are the absolute bedrock of the health service which is why we've backed them with an extra £2.4bn of funding for general practice and 5,000 more GPs by 2020.

'Patients deserve to be able to get the right care at the right time for them and 17m people are already able to make a routine appointment with a GP at evenings and weekends.'

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