Prominent family doctors have warned that there is a “workforce crisis” within general practice in the North East.
In an open letter sent exclusively to The Journal, leaders of the region’s Local Medical Committees (LMCs) say they are very worried about problems with GP recruitment and retention and the message must be “invest now or lose general practice”.
Recent surveys undertaken across Tyne and Wear by LMCs show that 34% of practices in the area are having difficulty recruiting GPs while a staggering 71% of doctors are thinking about early retirement, with 36% of those in their 50s planning to leave their role in the next three to five years.
The letter comes just a day after Labour leader Ed Miliband used his keynote party conference speech in Manchester to pledge that under his leadership £2.5bn-a-year would be poured into a Time To Care fund which could support 20,000 more nurses, 8,000 more GPs, 5,000 more care workers and 3,000 more midwives by 2020.
Yet medics in the North East insist that people are not wanting to join the profession as there are many vacancies within the local GP training scheme as only 20% of medical students are pursuing a career in general practice within the region but around 50% is needed to maintain the present workforce.
The letter says: “Patients complain bitterly that they cannot get an appointment to see their GP. This is getting worse and will continue to worsen in the near future, as there is a workforce crisis within general practice now. This crisis, which has been predicted for a while, is already upon us.”
Signatories of the letter include Dr George Rae, Dr Ken Megson and Dr Roger Ford, chairmen of local medical committees in Newcastle and North Tyneside, Gateshead and South Tyneside and Sunderland.
They say the onus must be on NHS England and Clinical Commissioning Groups to act quickly to work with the LMC to look at new ways of investing in general practice as “patients of the North East deserve this”.
The letter states: “From start to finish it takes about 10 years to train GPs, so the problems have to be addressed now.
“This is vital as general practice takes on more complex patients, more patients move from hospital to care in the community and also all the other things general practices do, such as commissioning, it is essential therefore that plans are made, as a matter of urgency, regarding investment within general practice to attract GPs back again.”
Figures from NHS England recently revealed that there had been a 9.7% fall of GPs in Tyne and Wear and up to a 14.8% reduction in Sunderland.
Dr George Rae, who works in Whitley Bay, said: “There is now a serious recruitment crisis in the North East in general practice. This was recognised at the Labour party conference in Manchester and, of course, is one of the reasons patients cannot get an appointment with their GP.
“However, GPs cannot be produced overnight and politicians must realise this, invest in and resource the GP workforce to make it attractive for younger doctors who find the work intensity and lack of work life balance off-putting. Doctors want to be able to give more and importantly patients deserve it.”
Bosses at NHS England have recognised that there is a shortage of GPs in the North East but say they have been working with universities to attract newly qualified doctors to the region.
Dr Mike Prentice, medical director for NHS England in Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear said: “Our local GP practices are working extremely hard to provide a good service to their patients. The demands on general practice have increased and GPs in the North East have risen to the challenge. We know that patient survey results for North east GPs are among the best in the country for access to services.
“It is true that there are national shortages of qualified GPs, with more doctors retiring than are completing their training. This has led to difficulties in recruiting in many areas of the country including the North East and we have worked with Newcastle University Medical School and Health Education North East to attract newly qualified doctors to the region by stressing the benefits of living and working in this part of the county and the excellent training opportunities available.”