‘There’s no easy fix’ warns GP as scale of doctor shortage revealed

Dr Paul Driscoll, medical director of the Suffolk GP Federation. Picture: ASHLEY PICKERING

Dr Paul Driscoll, medical director of the Suffolk GP Federation. Picture: ASHLEY PICKERING - Credit: ASHLEY PICKERING

The scale of GP shortages in our region is laid bare in NHS data which ranks parts of Suffolk and Essex among the worst places in England for patient-doctor ratios.

Ipswich, east Suffolk and north east Essex are already categorised as ‘hard to recruit’ areas by health bosses – and now our analysis of official data has revealed how many patients there are per GP.

It comes as trainee doctors are being offered ‘golden hellos’ of £20,000 to work in Ipswich and Colchester, which are among 22 locations in England where family GP vacancies are hardest to fill.

In this latest round of the scheme, run by NHS England, up to six trainees will be supported.

The regional picture at a glance

With an estimated 2,168 patients per GP, the Ipswich and east Suffolk clinical commissioning group (CCG) area is ranked 11th for patient-GP ratios in England, according to NHS Digital figures.

This means it has one of the highest numbers of patients per doctor in the country.

North east Essex is ranked 16th with approximately 2,089 patients per GP, while west Suffolk is 38th in England with 1,884 patients per doctor.

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The average GP has 1,734 patients, but there is no official recommendation for how many they should have on their books.

What’s behind the difference in availability?

Dr Paul Driscoll, Suffolk GP Federation’s medical director, said pressure is mounting on doctors as numbers dwindle and demand soars.

“There is no easy fix, it’s been a long time coming,” he added, noting that Suffolk has fallen behind on its targets.

“I think it’s a real failure on NHS England.

“Demand is definitely going up, and the number of GPs hasn’t kept pace.

He added: “I also think patients need to respect GPs more.

“People can be quite rude, and quite demanding, and that makes it hard for the GPs that are left.”

Dr Driscoll, who cited ageing GPs and early retirements, Suffolk’s proximity to London and its lack of medical schools as key reasons for the shortage, also criticised offering ‘golden hellos’ as an incentive.

“They just don’t work – it’s a short term solution,” he said.

‘There is greater access to primary care now than ever before’ – NHS England

Efforts are being made to make general practice more attractive in Suffolk, Dr Driscoll said.

Initiatives have included speaking to hospital doctors about embarking on a career as a GP.

Responding to his remarks, an NHS England spokesman said: “Across the country, all 265 places on the Targeted Enhanced Recruitment Scheme have been filled by trainee GPs and, since the scheme started in 2016/17 more than 500 trainee GPs have been recruited.

“Nationally, there is greater access to primary care now than ever before with 5,300 nurses, pharmacists and other health professionals working alongside GPs, weekend and evening appointments, and an extra £4.5billion investment in primary care through our long term plan, with primary care networks helping to free up extra resource for GP services in every community.”

Patient to GP ratio in Ipswich and east Suffolk ‘above average’

A spokesman for the Ipswich and east Suffolk CCG said: “GP practices in Suffolk, like the rest of the country, are facing an increased demand for services.

“Although the overall GP to patient ratio in Ipswich and east Suffolk is above the national average, patients are continuing to receive safe and effective health care.

“GPs and practice staff work hard for their patients, and this is reflected in the results of the latest GP patient satisfaction survey.

A total of 86% of east Suffolk patients rated the overall experience of their GP practice as being good or very good, which is higher than the national average.

“CQC ratings for individual practices indicate overall that primary care services are safe and of a high quality.

They added: “We know that east Suffolk is a great place to live and work.

“It is certainly a priority that we work together to tackle these recruitment issues and we continue to support the development programmes of NHS England, Suffolk GP Federation and Health Education England to recruit and retain healthcare professionals across the area.

“We are also actively looking to support transformation in general practice through the primary care strategy as well as supporting different models of care and collaboration between GP practices to help ensure sustainability.

“Recent initiatives include the introduction of care navigators in GP surgeries who will signpost people to other services in the community where appropriate, giving GPs and nurses more time to help those who really need it.

“It is also important to remember that primary health care services are delivered not only by GPs but by a range of highly skilled healthcare professionals including nurse practitioners and paramedics.”

Coastal areas can have an impact, say Essex NHS leaders

The high patient to doctor ratio remains a priority for health chiefs, those in charge at the north east Essex CCG said.

“As a CCG, we are working in conjunction with all of our practices across Colchester and Tendring to improve patient and staff experience,” a spokesman explained.

“This involves taking a wide view at how we recruit, train, retain and develop GP numbers today and in the future.

“Our strategy includes encouraging GPs and nurses who have retired or otherwise left the profession to return to primary care.

“We have exceeded our 2021 target for recruiting clinical staff to work alongside the GPs to provide good patient care, but we are continuing to build this workforce.

They added: “Our aim is that by working with our practices to develop a skill mix to meet the population need with GPs at the core, we will provide additional capacity to care for those patients who need them most. “As well as recruitment, we are making greater use of digital technology, partnering with the voluntary sector and constantly improving access to community based services.

“The north east Essex area features coastal districts, including peninsulas, which can limit the availability of the surrounding workforce. The high ratio of patients per GP and primary care more generally remains a key focus for the CCG, as well as our health and care partners in the North East Essex Health and Wellbeing Alliance.”