Rising pressure on A&E departments has been caused by a reduction in resources for family doctors rather than the ageing population, experts have claimed.
Issues with demand within the health service are often linked to a changing demographic, as people live longer with diseases like cancer and heart problems.
Glasgow University expert Professor Graham Watt told a conference in Edinburgh yesterday that a weakening of general practice was the most likely cause of a sharp increase in emergency admissions since 2004 in Scotland, rather than the growing elderly population.
Prof Watt hit out at “vague” political promises and urged ministers to emulate a recent funding increase in England which acknowledged the scale of the problem.
NHS England announced a £2.4 billion package to help family doctors south of the Border in April, which promised 5,000 new GPs by 2020.
Scotland is facing a chronic GP shortage as a quarter of practices are reporting at least one vacancy, according to the British Medical Association.
Prof Watt said: “We know that small shifts in the balance of care between primary and secondary care would be cataclysmic for secondary care but imperceptible for primary care. Hospital colleagues who clamour for more A&E consultants to cope with increased patients need to understand what keeps patients in the community is satisfaction with the care that primary care provides.”
Longer consulting times could help the patients with more than four different conditions who account for a third of all hospital admissions in Scotland, he said.
He told The Scotsman: “We need to recognise that there is a problem with GP funding in Scotland and commit to sorting it, for the sake of the whole health service.”
Funding for general practice in Scotland has fallen by £1.6bn since 2005 as the profession’s share of the NHS budget has been reduced to just 7.4 per cent, according to the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) Scotland.
Chairman Dr Miles Mack has said previously that practices and individual GPs are either “creaking or folding” under extreme pressure.
A survey of more than 100,000 patients across Scotland found many were happy with treatment by their GPs but satisfaction with access to appointments has fallen to 71 per cent – a drop of 10 percentage points since 2009-10.
The majority of respondents were positive about the actual care and treatment they received, with 87 per cent rating their overall experience as excellent or good and 95 per cent agreeing they were listened to by their doctor.
Liberal Democrat MSP Mike Rumbles said: “These figures confirm the warnings we have heard from the RCGP and many others over the pressure that primary care services are under.
“Unless we see urgent action, Scotland will be hundreds of GPs short by the end of the next parliament and the difficulties people are experiencing accessing them will only worsen.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “This government has committed to increasing, in every year of this parliament, the share of NHS budget dedicated to primary care.”