Sophie Borland, Health Correspondent at the Daily Mail, has reported how migration has helped push up the number of new patients.
GPs are struggling to cope with the hundreds of thousands of new patients registering for their practices, figures have revealed.
Some surgeries have seen nearly 500 patients sign up in the past 18 months, are now overcrowded and potentially unsafe.
The influx is driving up waiting times and, in the worst-affected areas, receptionists are telling patients to come back in three or four weeks for an appointment.
Family doctors say their in-trays are overflowing and they are unable to keep on top of vital blood test and scan results.
The busiest surgeries are in inner-cities with high rates of immigration, commuter belts with an influx of young families and areas of the countryside with retirees.
In Tower Hamlets, East London, 17,584 patients have registered since April 2013 – an average of 463 per practice. Bedford has seen 11,384 (438 per practice), while in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, there have been 7,055 (250).
The problem is worsened by the fact many surgeries are facing a recruitment crisis and unable to replace retiring doctors because the career is seen as unpopular. Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chairman of the British Medical Association GPs’ committee said: ‘This is extremely concerning to GPs themselves as we wait to be able to see patients in a timely fashion.
‘But the maths speaks for itself. If you have hundreds of extra patients joining a surgery you will inevitably have longer waits for an appointment.
‘We are seeing a population increase in the UK and some areas are seeing a bigger increase than others. In addition, the numbers of times patients see their GP is also increasing as they are getting older. The average patient is seeing their GP seven or eight times a year.’
Dr Tim Ballard, of the Royal College of GPs, added: ‘This growing demand has not been matched by funding. We urgently need more GPs and more investment in general practice so that we can cope with this demand and ensure that all of our patients receive excellent, free care that they need and deserve.’
Figures obtained by GP Magazine from the Health and Social Care Information Centre show that 522,526 patients registered with a surgery in England in the year to October.
By comparison, 78 surgeries have closed in 2014 – only nine opened – meaning those nearby have to take on their patients.
Surgeries have to register all patients moving into their catchment area regardless of the demand.
Dr George Farrally, a GP in Tredegar Practice, Tower Hamlets, said: ‘We could look after 3,000 patients well but we have 4,100 right now and the list is growing.
‘Access is the major problem throughout Tower Hamlets. It’s a real struggle. Demand exceeds capacity and everybody suffers.
‘It would probably take me three weeks to clear my in-tray and that would be without doing anything else – it’s a hopeless task. It is not a safe way of working.’
One patient commentating on the NHS Choices website about another surgery in Tower Hamlets wrote: ‘I am now being offered appointments in four weeks, nothing sooner.’
Another remarked: ‘Minimum wait for an appointment is three weeks if you’re lucky.’
Joyce Robins, of Patient Concern, said: ‘It’s very worrying. We are constantly hearing that patients are having to wait at least a week for an appointment.
‘It never used to be as bad as this, it’s getting very serious.’
Dr Mike Berwick, deputy medical director for NHS England, said the system needed to change to give GPs more funding and allow them to work more closely with hospital specialists.
He added: ‘Given the pressures they are under, we need a new deal for GPs
Oh dear – ‘he said it’. Does the new deal for GPs mean a nice pay rise, more money not going to patient care. More money will be thrown at the NHS again, most probably, in panic, and historically, once again most of it will bypass us as we sit in ‘waiting’ rooms.
NHS rules state that GP surgeries have to register all patients moving into their catchment area.
In exceptional cases, they can apply for temporary list closure, whereby they are allowed to refuse new patients for a few months. Figures from NHS England show that just 78 of 8,200 practices in England asked for a temporary closure in 2013/14 and only 55 were approved.
The process involves a lot of bureaucracy and surgeries will apply only if they are under extreme pressure.
Practices can also apply to shrink their boundaries but again this is granted only rarely.