The chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) has urged Jeremy Hunt to focus on retaining the GP workforce as much as recruiting.
Professor Maureen Baker said, in a letter to the health secretary, that if nothing is done to address the increasing shortfall of GPs, patient safety could be at risk as practices close and patients are forced to travel miles to their nearest surgery.
The RCGP has released analysis showing that 467 practices in England and 594 across the UK are at risk of closure because 75% or more of the GPs who work in them are aged 55 and over.
In the letter Baker acknowledges the pledge made in NHS England’s GP Forward View to increase the number of doctors working in general practice by 5,000 by 2020.
However, she emphasises that this cannot be achieved through recruitment initiatives alone.
Baker proposed a five-point plan of specific initiatives to retain existing GPs in the workforce.
These include a careers planning scheme for older GPs, to keep them engaged in the workforce in whatever capacity is appropriate for them, a bursary to support continuing professional development and help older GPs meet the costs of indemnity and priority for older GPs in the rollout of the medical assistants pilot.
Administrative burdens are often cited as contributing to GPs’ decisions to retire early.
A mentoring and job-sharing scheme that matches older GPs with GPs returning to work after having children was also proposed in the letter.
This would enable GPs to have a staged return to practice and older GPs have a staged retirement, while supporting the transfer of knowledge from older GPs to younger GPs.
Baker also called on the Department of Health to conduct a review of pension arrangements to ensure that pensions are not a disincentive to continuing to work for older GPs.
Baker said: “Older GPs have so much to give to their patients, their colleagues and the wider NHS, yet we are at risk of ‘brain drain’ on a massive scale. Even with the significant levels of investment promised in NHS England’s GP Forward View, this cannot be replaced overnight, if ever.
“Many GPs approaching retirement want to keep on practising but also want to develop other interests, medical and otherwise. But there are currently very few opportunities for them to do this, without leaving the profession altogether.
“At a time when patients in some areas of the country are waiting up to a month for an appointment and people are living longer but with many and complex long term conditions, this is a tragic waste of talent and expert knowledge.
“If we fail to address this, the consequences for the health service could be dire – and it is patients who will ultimately bear the brunt by not being able to see their GP when they need to.”
The College has launched Think GP – a series of videos and guide to highlight the excitement and challenge of a career in general practice, in order to attract more medical students to the profession.