Patient safety in general practice could be “at risk”, if nothing is done to turn around the chronic shortage of GPs, according to the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP).
The RCGP estimates that 594 practices will be forced to close across the UK by 2020 if more family doctors are not recruited, as the country faces a total shortfall of 9,940 GPs by that time.
The 594 practices identified, each has 75% or more of its GPs aged 55 and over.
The College says that unless drastic action is taken to ensure there are enough doctors in the workforce, thousands of patients could be forced to travel miles to their nearest GP practice or be left stranded with no family doctor at all.
In response, the College is launching a new video and guide, which aim to help recruit thousands of additional foundation doctors, medical students and sixth form students into a career in general practice.
It hopes that the video and guide will dispel the myth perpetuated by TV programmes that only doctors who work in hospital settings have an exciting and challenging role.
Another falsehood that the video and guide, called Think GP, will address is the idea that circulates in certain parts of the medical world that that the role of a GP is “run-of-the-mill”, with family doctors simply treating coughs and colds.
The video and guide highlight the fact that GPs are expert medical generalists who have to able to treat whatever conditions their patients present with.
The video and guide are the latest in a series of GP recruitment initiatives organised by the College, including regional “roadshows”, in partnership with Health Education England, and working with GP Societies in UK universities.
Dr Maureen Baker, RCGP chair, has also written to all Foundation Year doctors in England highlighting the challenge and stimulation of a career in general practice and encouraging them to sign up.
Their launch comes as the health service is faced with a population that is getting older and growing in size, with a resultant increase in the number of people suffering from multiple chronic, long-term conditions.
GPs and their teams now carry out around 1.3 million consultations a day, with research suggesting that workload has increased by 16% for GPs over the last seven years.
But the College estimates that the number of full time equivalent GPs across the UK has fallen to 35,589 from 35,990 in 2013/14.
The RCGP believes that each nation of the UK will have a substantial shortfall in the number of its full time equivalent GPs by 2020, with England experiencing a deficit of 8,371 GPs, Scotland a deficit of 830 GPs, Wales with 424 and Northern Ireland 316.
NHS England announced a plan in April to increase resources going into general practice, with a target of expanding the GP workforce by 5,000 additional doctors and 5,000 other members of the team by 2020.
It also pledged to boost investment in general practice by £2.4bn a year by 2020.
Dr Maureen Baker, chair of the RCGP, said: “It is imperative that we recruit huge numbers of medical students and foundation doctors into general practice in order to keep the NHS on its feet. If we fail, there will be too few GPs to go round, practices will close, and patient safety in general practice will clearly be at risk.
“General practice is the cornerstone of the NHS, with 90% of patient contacts in the health service being conducted by family doctors and their teams.
“The GP Forward View is a lifeline for general practice in England, and if implemented correctly it paints a bright future for our profession – we need to work together to ensure this happens, and for equivalent plans to be announced across the UK.”