Addressing a room full of doctors, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt reminded the audience of his promise in 2015 that there would be 5,000 more general practitioners working in the NHS in England by 2020.
We’re halfway to Mr Hunt’s deadline – so how is the government doing at meeting this target?
In 2015, there were about 34,500 GPs working in the NHS in England. The government wants there to be about 39,500 by 2020.
But the latest figures published by the NHS show that there are actually about 350 fewer GPs now than there were in 2015, when the target was announced.
These numbers include registrars – trainee GPs who are qualified doctors but have not yet completed their specialist training.
Once a medical school graduate picks a general practice specialism, it takes another three years to become a fully fledged GP.
So far, then, it doesn’t look like they’re on track.
Making up the numbers
How do you get more GPs into the NHS?
- train new ones
- hire from overseas
- make sure those already working as GPs don’t leave
The NHS is trying all three.
And the last of these appears to be proving a particular problem.
Mr Hunt told the Royal College of GPs’ annual conference that the NHS was doing “pretty well” at getting more medical graduates into general practice.
Health Education England, the part of the NHS responsible for making sure enough people with the right skills are trained and recruited into the health service, said it would make sure a minimum of 3,250 trainees per year were recruited to GP training programmes by 2016.
The number is up 9% since 2015 but is still slightly behind the target.
The National Audit Office, which scrutinises public spending , said in January that 3,019 places had been filled, or 93% of the target.
So, the number of medical graduates being recruited into the GP specialism is going up.
But it’s not yet having an impact on the overall numbers because more doctors are retiring or leaving the profession.
Between 2005 and 2014, the proportion of GPs aged 55 to 64 leaving the profession doubled, according to health think tank the King’s Fund.
The NHS has launched a range of initiatives to encourage GPs to stay in the profession, for example offering more flexibility, training and financial support, but it’s too soon to know how well they are working.
In July, the NHS also announced it would recruit more GPs from overseas by 2020-21 to meet its staffing targets. It’s too soon to say how effective this recruitment drive has been.
And on Thursday the Health Secretary announced newly qualified GPs would receive a one-off payment of £20,000 if they started their careers in parts of the country that struggled to attract family doctors.
Efforts are clearly being made, but progress has been slow.
The King’s Fund says that “the actions taken to deliver 5,000 more GPs by 2020 will need to be significantly more successful in the next few years for this pledge to be met”.