Andy Drane: Fall in junior doctors' numbers a real concern

In the week that UK voters go to the polls, healthcare and the future of the NHS has again, been a key issue on the campaign trail, although as a devolved matter, it is somewhat of an irrelevance to this election in Scotland.

Arguably, one of the biggest threats facing our NHS is the fall in the number of junior doctors wanting to specialise in general practice

The NHS is always a hot political issue because maintaining a responsive and stable health service makes such an impact on the daily lives of people in communities across the country. Any threat to the quality and ability to access services must be a top priority for politicians of all persuasions.

Arguably, one of the biggest threats facing our NHS is the fall in the number of junior doctors wanting to specialise in general practice. This worrying trend is not only affecting rural communities but impacting increasingly on urban areas of Scotland.

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One of the factors contributing to this decline is the financial burden imposed on many GP surgeries through their property lease agreements. This issue stems back to the mid-1980s when the Conservative government wanted to bring more private money into building new GP surgeries. Instead of lending GPs money to build their own, they handed the responsibility for developing new premises to the private sector to finance the new building then lease it back to GPs, a precursor to the Private Finance Initiative (PFI).

Thirty years on, these initial leases are coming to an end, with many GP practices facing restoration bills (known as dilapidations) amounting to as much as half a million pounds. With many GPs who signed these agreements now retired, the responsibility for these costs often falls on younger partners in a practice. It’s unsurprising that few newly-qualified doctors now want to take on such a burden and, as a result, we are seeing a decline in those wanting to pursue a career as a GP. Who can blame them, being faced with such a major commitment at the very start of their career, which comes with the real prospect of an almighty and rather costly legal argument further down the road?

In 2002 the General Practice Finance Corporation, which presided over GP leasing arrangements, was privatised and sold to Norwich Union. As a result, numerous surgeries are now owned by a handful of private property investors. While many of these companies have been very accommodating to find solutions for GP tenants, they are not about to write off bills totalling hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Of the 200 or so practices our firm represents in Scotland, most face recruitment challenges, and property is usually one of the issues behind this.

Several practices have leases coming to an end now, requiring political intervention to prevent more GPs from going out of business. One solution north of the Border is for the Scottish Government to take responsibility for all these leases and effectively release doctors from their financial obligations. That would certainly deal with the problem but whether it would be deemed as a fair use of public money is for politicians to decide. Doing nothing is not an option if we want to sustain our current level of healthcare services.

This is where legal advisers can play an important role, by helping the individuals who make up a community’s GP practice steer clear of the potential acrimony that can accompany such an agreement.

A specialist lawyer can help the partners of GP practices better understand their obligations, advising them on the prudent measures they can put in place to protect them from onerous future liabilities.

Along with the support of legal professionals, politicians also have an important role to play. Access to GP services is vital for the long-term sustainability of many communities, so addressing any threat which puts that at risk must surely be in the public interest. Who knows, it might even be a vote winner.

Andy Drane is a Partner and GP adviser at Davidson Chalmers