Warning GPs could buckle under 'unsustainable' workloads as appointments spike

GP practices in the Black Country and Staffordshire saw a spike in activity during March, with thousands more appointments recorded than in the previous month.

Doctors' groups have warned that GPs could buckle under the pressure of "unsustainable" workloads as they juggle rising numbers of appointments with the Covid-19 vaccine rollout.

NHS Digital data shows doctors carried out 811,387 appointments with patients at surgeries across the region in March – 129,441 more than in February.

That was also 145,773 more than during the same month last year, at the start of the pandemic.

Demand soared at GP practices across England, with every CCG area in the country recording a significant uptick in activity.

Nationally, 28.4 million appointments were recorded in March – the highest monthly figure since October 2019.

It means doctors delivered 4.8 million more consultations than they did the month before.

NHS Digital estimated that around 1.2 million of the bookings were related to Covid-19 vaccinations.

“These figures confirm what GPs have been trying to communicate to the public for the last year, that GP practices never closed and we are in fact busier than ever,” said Dr Ellen Welch, of the Doctors’ Association UK.

Despite this, she added, the group was still hearing reports that patients are finding it harder than ever to access care.

DAUK recently wrote a letter to the Health Secretary Matt Hancock demanding an urgent review into demand at GP practices, after it saw workloads “going through the roof”.

“We are yet to receive a reply to our letter to the Government about this,” Dr Welch added.

“But DAUK remains concerned that practices are working beyond capacity, leading to burnout and problems with staff retention, which ultimately impacts on patient care."

A recent survey by patients’ group Healthwatch England, which drew on patients’ experiences up to December, found many people were struggling to access care from their GP.

It also raised concerns that the rise in remote appointments during the pandemic was not meeting everyone’s needs.

In the Black Country and Staffordshire, and average of 57 per cent of appointments were carried out face to face in March.

That was significantly down from 71 per cent a year earlier, although NHS Digital said changes in how practices operate during the pandemic may have affected how appointments are recorded.

“Every day, more than a million patients in England had an appointment with their practices, whether this was the significant proportion seen face-to-face, on the phone, or, for a smaller number, via video call," said Dr Richard Vautrey, GP committee chair at the British Medical Association.

"This phenomenal amount and associated workload is before we consider the hundreds of thousands of other people being vaccinated via GP-led sites each day."

A Department of Health and Social Care spokeswoman said GPs have played a vital role in the response to Covid-19, caring for vulnerable patients while administering a large proportion of vaccinations.

She added: “To help expand GP capacity, we have made available an additional £270 million of extra funding until September to ensure GPs are able to continue to support all patients.”

An NHS spokeswoman said there are now almost 440 more GPs than last year across England.

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