Jeremy Hunt has said recruiting 5,000 additional GPs would be the ‘maximum’ possible within the next five years.
The NHS would need be “imaginative” about the skill mix in primary care workforce, the health secretary added.
Mr Hunt announced last week that there would be 5,000 extra GPs in the NHS by 2020, as part of the government’s “new deal” for general practice.
He said it was “going to be a challenge to deliver that additional 5,000 GPs, but there were “good plans in place to do that”, speaking at the Commissioning Show in London today.
Mr Hunt said: “In truth we think [5,000] is the maximum that we would be able increase the GP workforce by over the next five years, given the time it takes to train new GPs [and] given the potential number of people we could persuade to come back into the profession.”
He added the NHS “needs more capacity even than that in primary care”, so it would need to be “imaginative about the skill mix”.
The promise of 5,000 new GPs was part of the wider pledge by the government for a 10,000 net increase in primary care staff over the next five years. This included 1,000 physicians’ associates, working under the direct supervision of a doctor to help diagnose and manage patients, which Mr Hunt said “could be used to leverage GPs’ time”. The remaining 4,000 staff will include practice nurses, district nurses and pharmacists.
“Being imaginative about the skill mix is not something that we can debate whether we want to do or not, we will have to do it if we want to get capacity in out of hospital care that we need,” Mr Hunt said.
He defended the Care Quality Commission’s inspection regime for general practice, which has faced criticism from GP representative bodies. This week the Royal College of GPs called for an “immediate halt” in GP inspections, while the British Medical Association voted for the abolition of the CQC altogether at its annual conference.
It is “absolutely right that the public who are paying for general practice know about the quality of their local GP surgery”, he said.
However, he admitted “getting that inspection process right is a challenge because we haven’t tried to do that before”.
The health secretary argued that as a tax funded system, NHS had a greater opportunity to focus on patient quality compared to other countries’ health systems.
“Because we are a national health service, funded by taxpayers, we don’t have all sorts of perverse incentives that other insurance based systems and co-payments systems, so have the opportunity to focus on patients and patient quality in a way that other healthcare systems sometimes find difficult,” he said.