Eleven sustainability and transformation partnership areas have been identified as at risk of future workforce problems due to having “high” numbers of GPs nearing retirement age.

Data used in a presentation by NHS Improvement in March highlighted the STP footprints at greatest risk of experiencing future GP supply problems.

The Royal College of GPs said the NHS would be “fighting a losing battle” if more GPs are leaving the profession that entering, and retaining the existing workforce “must be a top priority”.

The presentation document, seen by HSJ, said 11 STPs were rated “red” for the proportion of GPs in their area who are over 55. In seven of these more than 20 per cent of GPs are over 55.

STP areas rated ‘red’ for proportion of GPs over 55

STPTotal number of GPsGPs per 10,000 populationPercentage of GPs over 55
Kent and Medway 851 4.73 24.20%
Somerset 338 6.20 24.00%
Lincolnshire 363 4.93 22.50%
Mid and South Essex 562 4.84 22.40%
Milton Keynes, Bedfordshire and Luton 454 4.92 21.90%
Gloucestershire 346 5.61 21.20%
Hertfordshire and West Essex 739 5.10 20.40%
Bath, Swindon and Wiltshire 474 5.30 19.30%
South West London 823 5.61 19.10%
Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly 314 5.69 19.10%
North East London 967 5.02 19.00%

The data was collected by NHS Digital for September 2015. An updated dataset was published in March 2016, reflecting overall numbers of GPs over 55, however this did not include a regional breakdown. The most recent data shows there were 5,951 GPs in England over 55 in December 2016 – an increase from 5,314 from September 2015.

Areas in the South East appear to have the highest proportions of over 55s and 12 STPs have also been rated red by NHS Improvement for the percentage of GPs who are over 65. HSJ has produced a map showing the over 55s risk rating for each STP area.

In the document, NHS Improvement said: “Low numbers of GPs per population could be indicative of a current supply problem. High numbers of older GPs could be indicative of future supply problems.”

There is currently a national push to retain GPs who are thinking of leaving the profession, including those intending to retire early. Last month, NHS England launched a scheme offering financial and training incentives to keep GPs in the profession.

RCGP chair Helen Stokes-Lampard said: “Progress is being made in recruiting more junior doctors into general practice, but overall GP numbers are down on last year, so moving forward we need to see a huge push in efforts to retain trained, experienced GPs in the workforce – as well as continuing to step up recruitment efforts, and making it easier to return to practice after a career break or period working abroad.

“No matter how many more trainees we recruit, if more GPs are leaving the profession than entering it, we are fighting a losing battle. Given that these figures show more than 20 per cent of GPs are approaching average retirement age in some areas, it hammers home that retaining our existing workforce must become a top priority.

“Ultimately we need to improve the working conditions for all GPs – and alleviate the intense resource and workforce pressures facing our profession.”

The Commons public accounts committee also raised concerns last month about whether reductions to the lifetime pension limit allowance, made in 2015, had contributed to the rising number of GPs retiring early.

The committee’s access to general practice inquiry report said: “We were concerned about the impact that pension arrangements are having on the retention of GPs. The Department of Health told us the arrangements have contributed to GPs leaving the profession, though this has not been the main reason behind more GPs retiring early.”

NHS Improvement and NHS England did not respond in time for publication.