GPs in England delivered 366.7 million appointments in 2021, 17.5% more than in 2019—an increase largely accounted for by 55.3 million COVID-19 vaccinations

A stressed male doctor with his head on his hands behind a pile of work.

According to official data, GP practices in England dealt with 366.7 million appointments in 2021, as delivery of COVID-19 vaccinations increased their workload. 

Figures from NHS Digital show that the number of appointments in 2021 was 17.5% higher than in 2019, the last calendar year before the pandemic. The British Medical Association (BMA) said that the statistics highlight the pressure on GPs, and show that the current workload is ‘simply not sustainable’.

In 2021, the GP practice workload included 55.3 million appointments for COVID-19 vaccinations. After these were excluded from the data, the number of appointments for the year was 311.5 million—just 0.17% higher than in 2019. Appointments in 2021, including for COVID-19 vaccinations delivered by practices and through primary care networks, reached a monthly high of 34.6 million in November 2021, before dipping to 29.1 million in December 2021.

Despite the shift towards remote appointments early in the pandemic, GP surgeries delivered 178.8 million face-to-face consultations last year, accounting for 57.5% of appointments, compared with 242.0 million in 2019, or 81.5%. In 2021, telephone appointments accounted for 38.2% of consultations, almost triple that in the previous year (13.4%). The proportion of patients in England seen on the same day in 2021 was 45.1%, down from 49.3% in 2020.

The BMA said that the latest data illustrate the immense backlog facing general practice.

Dr Farah Jameel, GP Committee England Chair at the BMA, commented: ‘On the 13th  December, the Prime Minister put out a call to arms, making the booster campaign the national priority in the fight against Omicron. General practice responded to the call and delivered 3.9 million vaccination appointments that month.

‘We now know that this booster wall of defence kept our sickest and most vulnerable safe and out of harm’s way. Yet again, GPs and their teams vaccinated this country out of crisis.’

GP appointment figures for December were ‘a staggering 20% higher than 2 years ago’, she said, making the current situation ‘simply not sustainable, especially when we consider that there are the equivalent of 1756 fewer fully qualified full-time GPs in the country compared with 2015.’

Dr Jameel added: ‘As well as creating and delivering solutions to bolster the workforce, Government must urgently scrap unnecessary administrative tasks, and other unachievable targets, if we’re to stand a fighting chance of getting on top of current demand.’

Next pay deal must reflect years of real-term cuts

The BMA said that the increased workload due to COVID-19 was reflected in its submission to the Review Body on Doctors’ and Dentists’ Remuneration (DDRB), which will recommend a pay award for the next financial year, following this year’s 3% increase in England.

A BMA spokesperson said: ‘After having given their all over the course of the pandemic, doctors were rightly dismayed last year to have their efforts so undervalued by the DDRB and the UK Governments, and with no attempt made to rectify a decade’s worth of real-terms pay cuts.

‘With inflation continuing to increase at pace, the BMA will be pushing for a pay increase this year that not only keeps up with the rising cost of living, but also seeks to address years of pay erosion.

‘We have now submitted our own evidence and specific asks to the review body for the 2022/23 round.’

This article originally appeared on Medscape, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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