The health secretary has commissioned Health Education England to conduct an area by area examination of general practice capacity, after admitting current assessments involved guesswork.
Jeremy Hunt made the announcement at the Royal College of GPs’ annual conference in Liverpool today.
The new study comes amid growing concerns about a “workforce crisis” in general practice.
Mr Hunt said “we all know we need more GPs” but are “guessing” how many.
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He said the study, due to report at the middle of next year, would “provide knowledge precisely area by area” about where there was insufficient capacity.
RCGP chair Maureen Baker said she welcomed the study.
Addressing GP delegates, the health secretary also called for greater NHS funding to be diverted into general practice, admitting much of it was used to hit “high profile targets” in acute services.
Mr Hunt told the conference it was “very important both in absolute care and as a proportion of total NHS spend that we move more into out of hospital care”.
He added it was “wrong that we have invested progressively less in general practice as a proportion of NHS spend”, and that the reduced proportion of mental healthcare spending was “equally wrong”.
The health secretary said “resources have tended to be drawn to where the big, high profile targets are” in secondary care, but it was a “false economy to head off more resources downstream” when “we need to keep people from needing hospital care”.
Mr Hunt was also critical of the structure of GP contracts to focus on money and “narrow financial targets”. He wanted instead “to see more money in the global sum in return for greater transparency about patient outcomes”.
Speaking shortly after a Conservative Party conference, where the prime minister set out plans for named GPs and seven day working in general practice in the next parliament, Mr Hunt heavily criticised Labour’s health policies.
He said it would be a “huge mistake to remove GPs from the commissioning process”, referring to Labour’s plan for health and wellbeing boards to become system leaders in controlling health budgets, and clinical commissioning groups being reduced to an advisory role.
Mr Hunt added he would like GPs to “have a much bigger role” with CCGs becoming accountable care organisations with capitated contracts.
He also criticised Labour’s suggestion for GPs to primarily become salaried NHS employees, saying it would be a “big mistake to remove [their] independent contractor status”, to an applause from delegates.
He stressed to delegates that the Conservatives’ pledge for seven day GP services would not mean every person would get to see their named GP 24 hours a day, seven days a week.