The government has once again been called upon to create additional NHS GP jobs in the face of a growing surge in demand for new staff to fill vacancies within this essential sector.
Although general practice plays an integral role in the overall NHS care structure, there has been a trend towards understaffing in recent months, leading industry bodies to call for a new approach to recruitment, as well as further reforms that would introduce new ways of organising care in order to address these persistent issues.
As such, all eyes will be on the government over the months to come as the industry as a whole considers new ways of ensuring safe staffing levels within general practice can be consistently maintained.
The fall in GP numbers
The growing need for greater GP hiring has been highlighted by industry publication Pulse on a number of occasions. Earlier this month, it drew attention to a response from health minister Dr Daniel Poulter to a parliamentary question that provided statistical evidence of the trend.
According to Mr Poulter, the number of GPs per 100,000 members of the population in England has declined by 2.6 per cent since 2009. In 2013 there were 67.8 GPs per 100,000 people, which was down compared to 69.6 per cent in 2009.
The minister said the coalition has "recognised the need to increase the GP workforce" and has upped the number of full-time equivalent GPs by 1,051 since 2011, while mandating that by 2016, 50 per cent of medical students would go into GP training.
However, a subsequent Pulse report showed there is some way to go towards making this a reality, as the proportion of GP training places filled in certain parts of the UK has fallen as low as 62 per cent in some areas.
Nationwide, 2,564 of positions have been filled in England for the August 2014 intake, representing 87 per cent of those available. This is down on the 2,764 positions filled in August 2013.
Taking corrective action
According to Pulse, policymakers are looking at possible ways of tapping into overseas locum talent to help fill some of the emerging gaps.
The Royal College of GPs (RCGP) and NHS England are reportedly looking at changing legislation to allow GPs who emigrate to practise abroad to be allowed to remain on the performers list, meaning they would be able to have their annual appraisal while in another country, possibly via Skype.
Additionally, plans are being made with Health Education England to fund and develop in-practice back to work schemes to help those returning after time abroad or a career break to get back into UK general practice. Such measures would help the sector make better use of existing talent that is not being utilised due to administrative barriers, while bolstering the locum sector in particular.
Meanwhile, the RCGP also recently launched an independent inquiry to look at how the NHS can best provide care for patients at a time when more people are affected by long-term conditions and resources remain relatively constrained.
To be chaired by former NHS Confederation chief executive Mike Farrar, this review could offer new insights into how the GP sector could be funded and run in a more effective manner, encompassing new models of care.
Those in charge of the industry will likely be giving serious consideration to these matters as they seek to ensure patients across the country always have access to well-staffed and well-run GP practices in their local area.
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