Is the government on track to get 5,000 more doctors working in general practice by 2020?

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Ahead of the general election on 8 June, we examine whether the government met their 2015 pledges on health and social care.

What did the Conservative party pledge in 2015?

During the 2015 election campaign, the Conservative party committed to increasing the number of doctors working in general practice by 5,000 by 2020. Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Health, confirmed that commitment shortly after the election.

What progress has been made?

The NHS is implementing a range of measures to meet the target. These are focused on training and recruitment of new GPs, and retention of existing GPs.

On the first of these measures, Health Education England has increased capacity for GP training with the aim of recruiting 3,250 trainees to GP training programmes each year from 2016/17. This appears to have had some impact, with the number of people starting GP training up 9 per cent between 2015 and 2016, although it remained narrowly below target. In addition, in 2016/17 NHS England launched a new scheme for former GPs to encourage them to return to practice; 370 doctors are currently participating in the scheme, and around 75 have already re-entered the workforce. Further action includes an overseas recruitment drive; this began in early 2017.

On the second measure – retention of existing GPs – NHS England has established initiatives to provide advice, flexibility and financial support to GPs nearing retirement. These were launched this year so it is too early to assess whether they are having an impact. Other measures to encourage GPs to remain in the profession include establishing a service providing support to GPs and GP trainees with mental health difficulties and an additional £30 million investment from NHS England in 2016/17 to help practices meet the rising costs of indemnity cover, which protects GPs from clinical negligence claims.

In 2016, there were 34,495 full-time equivalent GPs (including locum doctors). Rather than an increase, this represented a fall of 96 GPs, or 0.3 per cent of the GP workforce, compared with the previous year1. This was due to a growing number of GPs retiring or leaving practice; between 2005 and 2014 the proportion of GPs aged 55 to 64 leaving the profession approximately doubled. Surveys have also shown the number of GPs expecting to leave direct patient care in the next five years has increased.

The King’s Fund view

Given that the number of GPs fell slightly in 2016, 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.

  • 1. Changes in 2015 to how data on GPs is collected means it is not possible to robustly compare with earlier years.