The Department of Health (DH) and NHS England have been ‘complacent’  about the health service’s ability to cope with rising demand for GPs, according to a new report.

The ‘Access to General Practice in England’ report from the Public Accounts Committee notes that patients’ ability to get an appointment has “gradually but consistently declined” in recent years, and DH and the NHS have failed to ensure that staffing in general practice has kept pace with growing demand.

“They appear to have been complacent about general practice’s ability to cope with the increase in demand caused by rising public expectations and the needs of an ageing population, many of whom have multiple health conditions,” the report adds.

“The best available estimates for 2004–05 to 2014–15 indicate that each year the number of consultations grew by 3.5% on average, compared with 2% average annual growth in general practice staffing.”

The public spending watchdog says that DH and the NHS should be working towards having 5,000 more GPs by 2020 by making it more attractive for staff to remain in general practice; supporting those who wish to return after time away; and increasing recruitment.

The report identifies several other problems, including ‘unacceptable’ variation in patients’ experiences of getting and making appointments, the difficulty for patients in finding the right medical information, and the fact that having good access to general practice is too dependent on where patients live because of variations in staffing levels.

Dr Maureen Baker, Chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners comments: “Urgent measures need to be taken to reverse declining investment in our service and address the recruitment crisis in general practice.

“GPs and our teams are making an estimated 370 million patient consultations a year – 60 million more than five years ago – to meet the increasing demand of our growing and ageing population, yet the number of family doctors over this period has remained relatively stagnant.

“This toxic mix of increased demand and plummeting resources is leading many established GPs to leave the profession, and not enough medical students are choosing a career in general practice to take their place.

"In the longer term we are calling on the Government to increase investment into general practice to 11% of the NHS budget, and for thousands more GPs over the course of this parliament so that we can continue to deliver the safe care our patients want, need and deserve."