The number of fully-qualified GPs in England has fallen by 1.5% over the past year, but the headcount of nurses and non-clinical staff has increased in the same period, according to figures published by NHS Digital. 

The NHS Digital quarterly report presents data about GPs, nurses, direct patient care and admin/non-clinical staff working in general practice in England, along with information on their patients and practices.

Data shows that there is 441 less full-time equivalent GPs (28,697) in March 2019 than March 2018. 

In the last quarter, the number of qualified permanent GPs (excluding registrars and locums) from abroad has also declined. There were 269 fewer GPs (headcount) from outside of the European Economic Area (EEA) than in December 2018, and 96 fewer GPs (headcount) from the EEA.

NHS England has, however, recruited 300 more family doctors and thousands more nurses, pharmacists and other staff to work alongside GPs delivering better care in the community.

Increase in staff working in primary care overall

There are now 7,302 more full-time equivalent (FTE) health professionals working in primary care than three years ago, which it says exceeds NHS England’s target of an additional 5,000 by 2020 set out in the General Practice Forward View.

In the last year alone, there were 2,635 FTE (2%) more staff working in primary care overall than in March 2018 and an increase of 703 FTE (0.5%) over the previous quarter.

The figures show there were 1,029 FTE clinical pharmacists working in general practice at the end March 2019. This represents an increase of 58 FTE over the last quarter and an increase of 287 FTE since March 2018. In total, the FTE count of clinical pharmacists in general practice has increased by 38.6% over the year.

There were 167 FTE physician associates working in general practice (194 headcount) in England as at March 2019. This represents an increase of 37 FTE over the last quarter and an increase of 97 FTE since March 2018. In total, the FTE count of physician associates in general practice increased by 138.6% over the year. And there were 16,483 FTE nurses working in general practice, an increase of 313 on last year.

Recruiting and retaining doctors remains an absolute priority

Dr Nikki Kanani, interim medical director for primary care and a London GP said: “While the GP numbers show some encouraging signs, recruiting, retaining and supporting more doctors into practice remains an absolute priority for us. Today’s figures highlight the good work being done locally to support GPs through retention schemes and flexible working, as well as taking on more trainees.

“A significant increase in the number of other health professionals such as nurses, pharmacists and physicians that work alongside GPs means patients can get more timely and appropriate access to a wider range of highly trained staff. This supports family doctors to focus on patients with the most complex conditions and eases the workload pressures our GPs face.”

As part of the new GP Contract, patients will see general practices working together from 1 July in primary care networks, supporting each other to provide a wider range of specialist services, as well as offering the weekend and evening appointments which were rolled out across the country at the end of last year.

Increased investment of £4.5 billion going into primary medical and community services each year by 2023-24 as part of the NHS Long Term Plan will support the recruitment of 20,000 more health professionals, including physios, pharmacists, paramedics, physician associates and social prescribing link workers over the next five years to support GPs.

And as these multi-disciplinary teams ease the GP workload, it is hoped doctors will be able to offer longer appointments to patients who need them.