'This urgently needs to change' - MP's warning as region faces GP recruitment crisis
PUBLISHED: 17:12 08 May 2019 | UPDATED: 18:07 10 May 2019
A Suffolk MP has called for "urgent action" to tackle declining GP numbers - as new data reveals our region ranks among the worst staffed in the country.
The figures, from The Nuffield Trust, show the East of England has the second lowest staffing rate in the UK - with Suffolk and parts of Essex bringing down the region's average.
In Suffolk & North East Essex there are just 54 general practitioners for every 100,000 people, while in Mid & South Essex there are 46, compared with 58 in Norfolk & Waveney and 57 in Hertfordshire & West Essex.
This is compared with 76 in Scotland, 69 in the South West of England, and 67 in Northern Ireland.
The change in recent years is also shown to be particularly bleak in our region, with the East of England suffering a 4.4% drop in GP numbers between 2016 and 2018.
Meanwhile, there has been a rise of 2% in Northern Ireland, 1,2% in Scotland, and 1.1% in both Yorkshire & The Humber and the South West of England.
In fact, the only region to have suffered a greater fall in GP numbers is North West London, with a 5.1% drop.
Dr Dan Poulter, MP for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich, said recruitment has been "challenging" in the East of England for some time, as "more young doctors are preferring to work in city areas, and many experienced GPs are beginning to retire".
"The biggest challenge is not so much recruiting GPs into training as the numbers are going up, but rather to keep them training and working as GPs," he said.
"The drop-out rates amongst GPs in training is very high and urgent action is required to reverse this trend and to help GPs, particularly those with families and in part-time training, to feel better supported and able to complete their training.
"Another big factor affecting GP numbers and which is causing more GPs to retire early has been new pension rules that force many GPs to retire, or else face tax bills of close to 90 percent of their income.
"This needs to urgently change or else we shall lose many more experienced GPs and other clinicians from the NHS as they are forced to choose early retirement."
'The system stinks'
Dr John Cormack, who recently retired after 40 years working as a GP in Essex, said doctors are under "constant pressure" to deliver results with a budget that is "a contestant for a comedy award".
"This is not a sudden overnight problem," he said.
"The GPs are shouldering this huge, increasing burden. The work is getting more and more onerous. On top of that, there's this huge burden of bureaucracy."
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Dr Cormack, who once had 6,000 patients on his list, said he considered it "a good day" if he was able to leave work in time to grab a bite to eat from the kebab shop across the road, which closed at 11.30pm.
"If I was 27 rather than 72 I would not have worked the hours I did," he said.
"It is stopping young people coming and it is pushing the older doctors out. The demands are infinite.
"The thing is, the patients are wonderful - everyone was on first name terms. But the system stinks.
"The funding needs to be addressed because at the moment the people at the top are just making excuses for the system. Really they should be standing on the rooftops and shouting out."
The 72-year-old said it took an "enormous amount of staff time in order to get good results", with many GPs suffering from burnout.
"It was desperately bad," he said.
"At one point we just couldn't afford doctors at all and we set up a nurses-led practice.
"The people running the show really didn't know what they were doing. There should be more local autonomy."
He agreed the system was at "crisis point" but added: "Fortunately we had managed to turn the practice around to the extent a couple of GPs were interested in taking it over."
'The local variation is stark'
Billy Palmer, senior fellow in health policy at The Nuffield Trust, said: "Simply, the number of GPs entering the profession has not been keeping up with the number leaving. This means that patients will be waiting longer to see their preferred GP and more pressure is mounting on existing practice staff.
"While we would expect to see some level of difference in the number of GPs around the country, the local variation seen in our analysis is so stark that there is real cause for concern.
"This is particularly apparent for the East of England. We know that new GPs are more likely to stay working in the area they trained in, so boosting opportunities to train there could help to improve this trend in the long term."
What does the NHS have to say?
Dr Nikita Kanani, NHS England's national medical director for primary care, said: "We already know that general practice is under pressure which is why investment in local doctors and community services is increasing by £4.5 billion, helping fund an army of 20,000 more staff to support GP practices as part of the NHS Long Term Plan.
"But we are also aware that almost nine out of 10 salaried GPs currently work part-time."