Figures released by the BBC yesterday show the first sustained fall in GP numbers in the UK for 50 years. As our population increases and ages, the numbers of GPs is declining rapidly. The report makes for depressing reading.
That our NHS staff are under pressure is not news. Headlines about the strain clinicians are under are increasingly common. But what we’re now seeing are tangible statistics on just how many people are leaving the profession, and the impact this is having on patients.
Many of us will be familiar with how hard it can be to secure a GP appointment. They are a scarce commodity, with available slots often weeks away. A smaller number of GPs are having to cope with an increased amount of patients per head, alongside a marked rise in people living with chronic or complex conditions. Lack of access to primary care is pushing people towards overstretched A&E departments. As so the pressures increase across the whole NHS.
Increased Government funding for more primary care providers, including physios, pharmacists and other allied health professionals, is most welcomed. But the problem goes much deeper. And that means more revolutionary, more wholesale solutions are needed before the crisis escalates any further.
Junior doctors thinking about going into GP practice (or indeed any clinical setting) today are faced with relentless rotas, hugely pressurised shifts, and a lack of support from colleagues battling the same pressures.
In our all or nothing clinical culture, medics both new and established are opting for ‘nothing’.
We must start exploring ways to shift the culture within the NHS and change what working as a doctor in today’s health service looks like. We must of course invest in the training and recruitment needed to safely staff wards and GP practices, redressing the grim statistics that today’s report highlights, but we must also change what it means to practice medicine once you’re in post.
CCGs and Trusts must put the health, well-being and job satisfaction of their clinical staff at the very heart of their strategies, with central Government providing the funding needed to make structural changes to how we retain staff.
Then, technology must be championed to streamline these processes and take pressure off clinicians. New systems that dramatically reduce admin, minimise appointment no-shows, and more effectively triage patients will all help. As will educational programmes focusing on healthier lifestyles, those which promote a better understanding of pharmacists and physios, and the role of NHS 111.
There is no silver bullet to solving the NHS’ woes. But we must start with easing the burdens of our hard-working clinicians. Unless we do this, we cannot hope to continue to provide the level of care which patients expect and deserve.