According to new research by the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP), funding has drifted away from primary care towards hospitals over the last eight years – with the result that general practice now receives £2.4bn less a year than if funding had kept pace with secondary care.
Between 2005/06 and 2011/12 (the latest year for which figures are available) the overall British NHS budget grew by 18% in real terms, but – despite a growing population and spiralling health costs – funding for general practice fell by 8.3% in real terms.
The new research shows, because of the failure of funding for general practice to keep pace with investment in hospitals, there is now a funding black hole in general practice of £9bn in England, £925m in Scotland, and £250m in Wales.
It is believed that the trend for the investment in general practice to decline in real terms continues to this day, with recent research by the RCGP showing that funding for general practice in England had declined in real terms by £400m in the three years up to and including 2012/13.
The funding squeeze for general practice has taken place despite the fact that the British population has grown by 2.6m, with many more people suffering from serious, long-term conditions – and the average number of consultations requested by each patient increasing.
In 2001, the population of Britain stood at 58.8m, by 2011 this had risen to 61.4m.
In 2005/06, 10.7% (£9.5bn) of the British NHS budget was spent on general practice, when the total NHS budget stood at £88.6bn, in 2012 money.
By 2011/12, this figure had declined by over two percentage points to 8.4% (£8.8bn), when the total NHS budget stood at £104bn, in 2012 money.
The failure of general practice funding to keep pace with spending on the rest of the NHS – alongside the changing nature of the population – is seen as the key cause of the continuing growth in waiting times to see a GP with the situation expected to worsen this winter.
An opinion poll, conducted on behalf of the RCGP recently, showed that 71% of GPs expect waiting times to worsen over the next two years due to the decrease in funding.
As a result of the £10.2bn funding black hole, GPs are now conducting 90% of the NHS contacts for £2.4bn less each year than would have been the case if funding in general practice had kept pace with investment in secondary care.
In response to the decline in funding, the RCGP and the National Association for Patient Participation (N.A.P.P) have launched a major campaign called Put patients first: Back general practice, which is calling for 11% of the overall NHS budget by 2017, a modest increase of just one percentage point of the NHS budget per year.
GPs say this increase would allow them to offer shorter waiting times for appointments, as well as more flexible opening hours and better continuity of care.
RCGP Chair Dr Maureen Baker said: “The drift of funding away from general practice to secondary care is a deep-seated and long-term trend which is starving general practice of the money it needs to deliver high levels of patient care.
“The vast majority of GPs think that the decline in funding for general practice will regretfully lead to longer waiting times for patients over the next two years. This lengthening of waiting times is a continuous process, and will inevitably worsen this winter as temperatures plummet.
“This is bad news for patients and bad news for the whole of the NHS. If waiting times become longer, this will make it more difficult for GPs to ensure that problems are caught early, and risks intensifying pressure on already overstretched A&Es.
“GPs want to offer their patients faster and more convenient access but are being held back from doing so by a chronic lack of resources. The Government must take urgent action to pump more resources into general practice so that family doctors can treat patients in the community, thereby taking the pressure off hospitals.”
RCGP Press office – 020 3188 7574/7575/7581
Out of hours: 0203 188 7659
Notes to editor
The Royal College of General Practitioners is a network of more than 49,000 family doctors working to improve care for patients. We work to encourage and maintain the highest standards of general medical practice and act as the voice of GPs on education, training, research and clinical standards.