A National Audit Office report has found that while the vast majority of patients were able to get a GP appointment in the last year satisfaction with access is on a continued decline.

The report found that 90 percent of patients were able to see their GP in 2014/15, but 27% said it was not easy to get through to the GP practice on the telephone, a fifth of patients felt that opening hours are not convenient, and considerable variation in access was seen between different demographic groups.

Older patients were more likely than younger ones to access appointments, while the NAO’s also found that people from a white ethnic background reported better access than those from other ethnic groups. 

Nationally, 92 percent of people live within two kilometres of a GP surgery, but taking a closer look, just 1% of those living in urban areas do not have a GP surgery within this distance, compared with 37 percent in rural areas.

It was also noted that while it is widely believed that demand for general practice services are fast outstripping capacity, the Department of Health and NHS England do not have up-to-date data to determine the exact number of consultations taking place, which was estimated to be around 372 million in 2014/15.

Furthermore, the NAO also identified that problems in recruiting and retaining GPs are increasing, with 12% of training places in 2014/15 remaining unfilled. Given that GPs make up only 29% of the general practice workforce, they are unlikely to be able to deal with the rising demand for services alone, it warned.

Need for better data

“Against the background of increasing demand and pressure on NHS resources, the challenge is how to maintain people’s positive experience of accessing general practice and reduce variation, said NAO head Amyas Morse. And while the DH and NHS England are working to improve access, they are “making decisions without fully understanding either the demand for services or the capacity of the current system”. 

Also commenting on the report, Maureen Baker, Chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: “The fact that so many patients are satisfied with the level of access they have to their GP practice is testament to the hard work and dedication of family doctors and their teams at a time when they are facing intense resource and workforce pressures”.

“But it cannot be ignored that as general practice strives to meet the increasing demand of a growing and ageing population, with consistently fewer resources, our patients’ ability to make a timely appointment is worsening,” she stressed, adding: “we desperately need more resources”.