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Regional shortages of GPs: is it time to address health inequalities?

New data shows clear disparities in access to GP services between regions across the UK. With the crisis of the NHS backlog and the shortage of treatment and care for the public, we examine the widening regional health inequalities and what can be done to fix this.

New data revealed by the Nuffield Trust shows certain regions across the UK are facing significant shortages in the number of GPs available for citizens. With the lowest national average of GPs per capita in Europe, some areas are even worse off than the rest of the UK.

Areas such as Portsmouth, Brighton, parts of Essex and Hull had the fewest GPs, with less than 50 GPs per 100,000 patients. That is the equivalent of more than 2,000 patients for every GP.

Attention to these stark regional disparities comes within the national picture, as patient groups have warned access to doctors is one of the biggest problems for patients accessing NHS treatment. With over six million people waiting to be seen and treated by healthcare professionals, the inability to access primary care particularly in these areas is halting progress to clear the backlog. As the nation comes out of the catastrophe of the Coronavirus pandemic, the Government must target access to primary care as a necessity to improve faulting health outcomes and inequalities.

Billy Palmer, of the Nuffield Trust, said:

“In an NHS founded on the principle of equal treatment, such stark differences represent a serious failing.”

The factors contributing to the shortage of primary care access, particularly in some regions, are numerous. Recruitment and retention of staff is proving an extremely problematic situation and disproportionately impacting some patients over others.

Government response

The Government has expectedly brushed over these concerns and assured the public that investment in the workforce is increasing.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokeswoman said the government was “working hard to support and grow the workforce”. She pointed out the number of trainee doctors was increasing, while other staff – such as practice nurses, physios and pharmacists – were also being invested in, to work alongside GPs.

It’s safe to say these ‘assurances’ have done little to alleviate concerns expressed by patients groups and the wider public mood towards the current issues in healthcare.

Integration in healthcare

Driving integration between healthcare services, particularly with primary care, is a key part of the Government’s ambitions for the NHS and life sciences industry. In order for health inequalities to be reduced at scale, it is widely acknowledged that services need to work efficiently and effectively together. Regional disparities in access to primary care forms a key issue facing patients, requiring

Our NHS Innovation and Life Sciences Commission is producing an action plan to place innovation at the heart of health and life sciences, including integrating treatment and care services.

Final thought

The data showing regional disparities in primary care is unsurprising, yet alarming that health inequalities are continuing to widen. The structural deficiencies in primary care staff is extremely problematic for the UK, leaving vital health services inaccessible for many, particularly in the highlighted areas.

The Government, despite assurances on investment in staffing, clearly has a huge task on their hands to improve access for the whole nation and close inequality gaps that exist. Despite obvious calls for investment, the Government must seek innovative methods to improve integration between healthcare services in the NHS. Harnessing collaboration between these should provide, at the least, more options for the health service to reach people in need.

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