Politically-driven access targets could set general practice back 20 years, warns RCGP chair

General practice could be set back 20 years if the government imposes access targets that put political priorities over patients' needs, the RCGP chair has warned.

RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard (Photo: Pete Hill)
RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard (Photo: Pete Hill)

In her final major speech as RCGP chair, Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard warned politicians against 'vote-winning gimmicks' focused on GP appointment waiting times.

The warning came after Boris Johnson said in his first speech as prime minister in July that he had asked officials to 'provide policy proposals for drastically reducing waiting times for GP appointments'.

Speaking shortly before health and social care secretary Matt Hancock was due to address the 2019 RCGP conference, Professor Stokes-Lampard warned that the profession could 'crumble' if ministers impose ‘arbitrary targets that prioritise what politicians want over what patients really need’.

GP access target

Almost a decade after the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in 2010 scrapped the 48-hour GP practice appointment guarantee introduced by the previous Labour government, the RCGP chair urged the government to 'learn from history'.

Professor Stokes-Lampard called for investment in general practice, the GP workforce and infrastructure across the UK - identifying this as the best way to improve patient access.

She said: 'Do not take us for granted. Do not make any rash decisions about our service or introduce gimmicks that might be vote winners but would ultimately set back general practice 20 years.

'History has taught us that access targets in general practice do not work. We must learn from those lessons, not repeat them.

Pressure on GPs

'We must first be offering what our patients need, not what politicians want. If unrealistic targets are imposed on our profession, it will crumble, and if general practice crumbles, patients won’t be able to see a GP at all.'

The speech came as a 1,500-GP ComRes poll commissioned by the college found that the vast majority of GPs are working longer than their contracted hours, struggling to recruit, and have too little time with patients.

Only just over half of GPs who took part said they were likely to be working in general practice in five years' time.

The RCGP chair told the conference that the college welcomes Mr Johnson's pledge to tackle 'three-week waits to see a GP' but that this 'must be done in the right way' to avoid adding to pressure on the profession.

GP funding

She highlighted 'welcome signs' that funding promised for general practice is filtering through to the frontline, but warn that 'many GPs are still telling us that running a practice is unsustainable' - hitting out too at the lack of progress on boosting the GP workforce.

GPonline revealed earlier this year that of the 307m GP appointments delivered over the past year by GPs in England, more than 211m - around seven in 10 - took place within a week.

But in around 17% of cases, patients wait more than two weeks for an appointment - reflecting rising pressure on general practice across England. Although the figures are skewed to an extent by cases in which patients have simply booked ahead, doctors' leaders have acknowledged that some patients are waiting too long.

Professor Stokes-Lampard will stand down as RCGP chair at the end of her three-year term on Saturday 23 November.

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