Warning over doctor-free ‘sink holes’

There are fears that lack of support for GPs will make the NHS 'capsize'. Picture: Getty
There are fears that lack of support for GPs will make the NHS 'capsize'. Picture: Getty
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A growing number of GP “sink holes” will emerge across Scotland in the coming decade as practices are “abandoned” by doctors and close down, one of the country’s leading medical figures has warned.

General practice has been “systematically weakened” over the past ten years and the situation is poised to get worse, according to Professor Graham Watt of Glasgow University.

It comes after GP leaders in Scotland recently warned the “underfunding” of the service was so bad that many Scots will soon no longer have access to a doctor.

Watt is a specialist in general practice and primary care and compares the NHS to a ship which is poised to “capsize” because of “preferential investment” in hospital consultants and other specialists, while frontline GPs have lost out.

“If general practice is systematically weakened, as has happened during the last decade, patients will flood through the gate, accessing out of hours, A&E services or acute hospital admissions,” In a submission to MSPs ahead of next year’s budget, Watt warns: “The answer is not more A&E consultants. The problem is likely to get worse. For the next decade at least, as a result of the trends described, the general practice landscape will feature increasing numbers of ‘sink holes’ as practices can’t fill vacancies, are abandoned by GPs and replaced by Heath Boards using stop-gap arrangements.”

Patients with multiple conditions will suffer most as they will be in most need of “personalised continuity of care” regardless of their conditions which is generally provided by GPs that they “know and trust.”

“The NHS weakens such care at its peril, yet this is what it has done, grossly disturbing the balance between specialist and generalist care, and relying on emergency care to pick up the pieces.

“Likening the NHS to a ship, there has been too much investment in the specialist side of the service, so that the ship is listing seriously to one side and in danger of capsize.”

The Royal College of General Practice warned recently that ongoing underfunding of GPs has resulted in many practices being closed and transferred to health board control.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “As the First Minister announced last year, a further £500 million will be invested in primary care by the end of this parliament. This spending increase in primary care, to 11 per cent of the frontline NHS budget, will support the development of a multi-disciplinary approach, with increased staffing as well as investment in GP services and health centres.

“Health Secretary Shona Robison recently set out that £250m of this new investment will be in direct support of general practice, helping to transform the way services are delivered in the community – an approach that was agreed with the British Medical Association.

“In this financial year, over £71m of that funding is to support general practice by improving recruitment and retention, reducing workload, developing new ways of delivering services and covering pay and expenses.”