CALLS have been made for immediate action to tackle the “looming crisis” in the recruitment of family doctors, as it was revealed that health boards were being forced to take over practices due to GP shortages.
NHS boards have taken the unusual step of taking control of 42 surgeries in Scotland to ensure patients had access to a GP while vacancies spiralled.
A survey sent to each of the country’s 987 GP surgeries by Labour public health spokesperson Dr Richard Simpson MSP, revealed that almost one in four GP partners are close to retirement age.
It found 92 unfilled GP vacancies and 68 sessional GP vacancies – which refers to locums and other doctors who provide cover for sickness and holiday leave.
Dr Simpson also received 50 emails from worried doctors outlining “serious and detailed concerns” about the situation.
Practices are normally owned and run by GP partners but health boards can intervene if asked to by doctors, or in an emergency to ensure patients have access to a GP.
NHS Lothian admitted it was taking control of a fourth practice next month, while health boards in Grampian, Forth Valley, Highland, Shetland and Tayside have all stepped in to help struggling surgeries.
Dr Simpson, who was a GP for more than 30 years, said: “A family doctors crisis is looming in Scotland, but patients across the country are feeling the effects now.
“We are seeing fewer doctors serve more people, an increasing number of practices where the NHS has to step in to sort it out, and an increasing number of vacancies across the country.
“Between GP partners retiring in next decade combined and emigration rates of newly qualified doctors continuing we are going to see primary health care come under crushing pressure, particularly as our population ages.
“It is the SNP government’s responsibility to manage workforce planning in our NHS. They have known about the age profile of GPs for a long time so should have been putting measures in place to make sure more GPs were training.”
The news should be an “urgent wake up call” for ministers, warned Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie MSP.
He added: “Unless quick, concrete action is taken we face the prospect of more patients facing long waits for what should be routine appointments.
“We have the prospect of a vicious circle where increased pressure on our remaining GPs will make it harder to recruit and retain doctors in this crucial area of medicine, increasing the workload again and putting further strain on GPs and accident and emergency services alike.”
One in five training slots for GPs in Scotland went unfilled this summer, posing a critical threat to the sector’s struggling workforce.
Dr Carey Lunan, of the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP), called for long term funding from the Scottish Government to attract more trainees, to allow GPs to return to the profession and to encourage GPs to stay in the profession.
Dr Lunan, who works as a GP in Edinburgh, said: “A satisfactory solution has to be found to the current state of affairs and that solution must begin with Scottish Government getting fully behind general practice with a firm commitment to appropriate, long-term funding which would attract more GP trainees into the profession, allow GPs to return to the profession and encourage GPs to remain in the profession.
“We welcome the recent announcements around additional short term funding to address some of these issues, but we do not believe that this goes far or wide enough. We must hear a great deal more.
“For many years, the annual funding to general practice has been cut, and until this situation is reversed, and we see a sustained increase in resourcing of the general practice workforce, this situation is only going to get worse.”
Public Health Minister Maureen Watt denied there was a crisis in Scottish healthcare.
She said: “GP surgeries run directly by health boards make up a small percentage of the total number of practices in Scotland and it’s important to note that this number has changed very little over the past decade.
“This is a legitimate part of the GP contract and happens for a number of reasons. Often it is more appealing to GPs to be in a salaried post, and in rural and deprived areas there can be many benefits for practices to adopt this model.”