Strained A&E departments are having to deal with millions of additional patients because people are struggling to get a timely GP appointment, new research suggests.
Estimates suggest that nearly six million attendances at English A&E departments could be due to patients being unable to get a convenient appointment with their family doctor, the study found.
For every 100 patients who try to get an appointment at their local GP surgery, 1.7 will resort to attending the emergency department, the authors said.
Experts from Imperial College London analysed the results from the national GP Patient Survey from 2012-13, which is answered by around one million patients, and the annual numbers of GP consultations.
The research, which has been published in the British Journal of General Practice, found that while the majority of patients said they could get a convenient appointment, 1.67 per cent of those who attempted to get an appointment visited A&E after not being able to get a timely consultation, the authors said.
They estimated that for 2012-13 this figure would equate to 5.77 million A&E visits - or 26.5 per cent of unplanned attendances during this time frame.
Lead researcher, Thomas Cowling, a National Institute for Health Research doctoral research fellow at Imperial College London, said: “There has been a lot of talk in recent years about rising numbers of A&E attendances and the impact that this might be having on A&E departments.
“It has been suggested that a lack of access to GPs could be a factor but there hasn’t been much evidence to back this up. Our research has provided a helpful indication of the situation, but we acknowledge the uncertainty present in the estimates.”
Dr Maureen Baker, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: “Every patient should be able to see their family doctor when they need to, and GPs want to provide the best possible access and high-quality care for all their patients.
“But this research is further evidence of the crisis in general practice, with family doctors heaving under the strain of rocketing patient demand, due to a growing and ageing population, and plummeting investment.
“More than 90 per cent of patient contacts in the NHS are dealt with in general practice - for only 8.39 per cent of the budget
“There are now 40 million more consultations a year in general practice than there were even five years ago and GPs are routinely working 11 hour days and seeing up to 60 patients in a day to try and meet the demand.
“Without the vital funding that general practice so desperately needs, the future for patients is looking increasingly bleak.
“General practice is the cornerstone of the NHS, keeping it sustainable and safe for patients. If it can’t cope, there are knock-on effects across the NHS and the ramifications for patients will be disastrous.”
The British Medical Association recently warned that two-week waits for routine appointments with family doctors could soon become commonplace.
Speaking at the union’s annual representative meeting, which took place in Harrogate last week, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chairman of the BMA’s general practitioners committee, said that waiting lists are set to soar as GPs are stuck between a mismatch of rising demand and a “shrinking” capacity to provide care.
Commenting on the latest research, Dr Richard Vautrey, deputy chairman of the BMA’s GP committee, said: “General practice is under intense pressure from a combination of rising patient demand, especially from an ageing population, and funding cuts.
“There are not enough GPs and other staff available to treat the sheer number of people coming through the surgery door.
However, given the unsustainable strain on GP services, it is understandable that patients are becoming frustrated at the number of appointments available, something that GPs are just as concerned about.
“We need politicians to realise that there needs to be long-term, sustained investment in GP services, including an expansion in the number of GPs, nurses and other healthcare professionals working in the community.
This is not a problem that is going away, we need urgent action.”
But the College of Emergency Medicine questioned the findings.
President of the College, Dr Clifford Mann, said: “In our experience most patients we see have made the right call in coming to A&E.
“We recently conducted our own research and found that 15 per cent of patients who attended could be safely redirected to their GP.
“This is less than the number estimated in the research by Imperial College but still represents 2.1 million patients per year.
Ben Dyson, director of commissioning policy and primary care at NHS England, said: “Since 2002-03, the money that the NHS spends on GP services has increased by a third and patient consultations have been increasing year-on-year, but patients should not be unable to get appointments.
“A major programme of work to help transform GP services, including patient access, has begun, including the prime minister’s £50m challenge fund that will support GPs in improving access to services, in more modern ways with greater use of telephone, email and video consultations as well as more flexible appointment times.”