The latest British Social Attitudes Survey, conducted by the National Centre for Social Research, found that 59% of patients living in the country’s poorest areas said they struggled to secure a consultation with their GP.
Around half (51%) of all patients in England said it was hard to get a GP appointment. This figure rose to 65% among parents with children aged under 5.
GP leaders said the findings were disappointing, but not surprising. They said that general practice needed significantly more funding to reverse the decline in the number of GPs and deal with growing workload.
The survey found that those living in the most deprived parts of the country also expressed a greater preference for using A&E departments, with 29% saying they had chosen to go to A&E over seeing a GP because they could ‘get tests done quickly’.
In contrast, just 11% of people living in the least deprived areas expressed this view. The figure was 17% among all patients.
Patients remain confident in GPs
Despite half of the 2,906 respondents saying they found it difficult to get appointments with their GP, the survey found confidence in GP services was high.
Some 65% of all patients said they had confidence in GPs, with just one in ten patients stating they were not confident in GPs.
Those in the most deprived areas had the least confidence in GPs (18%). Some 48% of this group also said they preferred to use NHS services where they did not need to make an appointment. Among all patients, 36% said that preferred to use services where they did not have to make an appointment.
The figures come just weeks after prime minister Boris Johnson pledged to ‘dramatically reduce waiting times for GP appointments', tasking officials to provide policy proposals.
Official figures published earlier this year showed that nearly seven in 10 GP appointments were delivered within a week or less. However, 17.4% of appointments involved a wait of more than two weeks from the time they were booked.
Meanwhile, analysis by the BMA published in May found that more than 2.2m patients waited almost a month for a GP appointment in January and February this year. This was up 15% compared with the same period in 2018.
The number of patients registered with GP practices in England has risen by more than 720,000 over the past year, according to official data. However, the most recent GP workforce data show that in the year to March 2019, the number of fully-qualified, full-time equivalent GPs fell by 441.
BMA deputy chair and GP Dr David Wrigley said the findings from the latest survey were ‘disappointing but not surprising’ after years of cuts and called for the government to provide more funds to general practice.
‘We need to see significant new investment reach frontline emergency care and GP services. This way patients, particularly those in deprived areas, can have timely access to a healthcare professional most appropriate to their needs and feel confident in the care they are going to receive,' he said.
‘It is crucial that the government delivers now on investment so doctors, who are similarly frustrated with long patient waits, are able to do the job they are trained to do – care for patients.’
Significant investment needed
RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard said: 'We understand our patients’ frustrations when they cannot secure a GP appointment when they need one, and GPs and our teams share their concerns.
'As NHS GPs, we desperately want to be able to provide the necessary levels of high-quality care that our patients expect – and deserve – and which in turn will help ease pressure on other healthcare services. But as patient numbers rise, and health conditions become more complex, we are under more pressure than ever and are significantly understaffed so improvements simply cannot be achieved without significant investment into our profession.'
King’s Fund senior fellow Beccy Baird, said that the figures made clear the real impact of overstretched health and care services.
'A chronic shortage of GPs and increasingly complex workloads have left patients finding it more and more difficult to book an appointment with their GP,' she said. ‘People living in deprived communities often have the most complex health needs, yet those same people find it hardest to access their GP.’
She added that the recent funding boost as part of the GP contract and the creation of primary care networks offered hope to tackle these issues, but only if GPs were supported to ‘prioritise improving access and maintaining continuity of care'.