A million people displaced by GP surgery closures

GP surgery (Anthony Devlin/PA) Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

More than a million GP patients have been forced to search for a new family doctor after their surgery closed or merged during the last five years, a new report suggests.

There has been a rising number of patients displaced as GP practices have been forced to close their doors, according to the data obtained by GP magazine Pulse.

It found that the rate of closures accelerated between 2013 and 2018.

In 2013 there were just 18 practice closures across Britain, leaving more than 23,000 people looking for a new GP.

But by 2017 the figure had risen to 134, displacing at least 311,000 patients.

Between 2013 and 2017 a total of 445 GP practices shut their doors due to closures or mergers, affecting more than a million patients.

However the number of patients displaced is likely to be much higher as officials did not supply the number of patients on the books for a number of the practices which closed.

The magazine, which obtained the information through a series of Freedom of Information requests to health bodies across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, estimated that in total more than 1.3 million patients had been affected.

It asked how many surgeries had been closed as a result of practice closures, mergers, or practices closing branch surgeries, and how many patients had to move surgery as a result.

Dr Richard Vautrey, chairman of the British Medical Association’s GP Committee, told Pulse: “These new figures will resonate with the experience of GPs across the country as the recruitment and retention crisis in general practice is impacting practices of all sizes and all situations, as doctors face the pressures of rising workload, increasing administrative burden and a lack of resources.

“Practices in rural and coastal regions, where the distance from large cities becomes a major obstacle in drawing in new recruits, have been particularly badly hit.”

He added that national initiatives to recruit GPs into these areas “will take some time before producing results”.

Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chairwoman of the Royal College of GPs, said: “Whether it’s in Plymouth, Brighton, Folkestone, or anywhere else in the UK, a GP practice closing can have serious ramifications for the patient population it served, neighbouring surgeries, the health and wellbeing of the GPs involved.

“Sometimes, a closure is due to a practice merging, or becoming part of a federation, so that it can pool resources in the best interests of patient care.

“But when it is because the practice team simply can’t cope with the resource and workforce pressures they are facing, it’s a serious failure of the system.

“GP surgeries will only hand back their contract to the NHS as an absolute last resort, but we are hearing that this is becoming increasingly common up and down the country, but particularly in rural and other ‘under-doctored’ areas where practices are finding it more difficult to recruit new GPs.

“For those living in isolated areas, this can mean having to travel long distances to get to their nearest surgery, and is a particular worry for those who might not drive and have to rely on public transport.

“The College, for several years, has consistently highlighted the pressures facing general practice, and the impact they are having on patient care, and the wellbeing of GPs and our teams, and we are frustrated at the slow pace of change.

“That’s why we urgently need to see NHS England’s GP Forward View, which promises an extra £2.4bn a year for general practice and 5,000 more GPs by 2020, delivered, in full, and similar promises made and delivered in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, to ensure patients continue to receive the care they need and deserve, regardless of where they live.”

Jonathan Ashworth MP, Labour’s shadow health and social care secretary, added: “This exposes the real crisis in primary care after eight years of grinding Tory austerity across the NHS.

“Labour has long called for primary care to be given greater priority and investment.

“A key test for Theresa May in the coming weeks will be whether or not she finally delivers the level of investment and support that primary care so obviously needs.”

An NHS England spokesman said: “More than 3,000 GP practices have received extra support thanks to a £27 million investment over the past two years and there are plans to help hundreds more this year.

“NHS England is beginning to reverse historic underinvestment with an extra £2.4 billion going into general practice each year by 2021, a 14% rise in real-terms.”