GP video-consultations slumped during April as patients stayed away from practices, according to new figures.
The total number of practice appointments fell by about a third – and hopes that practices would successfully switch to using video appeared disappointed in the NHS Digital figures. They show that practices recorded 44,146 video or online consultations compared with 172,638 in February. Telephone consultations increased slightly, from 6.6 million in March to 7.6 million – while face-to-face appointments fell from 15.9 million to 7.5 million.
The analysis shows little shift in the proportions of appointments taken by GPs and other staff. In March GPs accounted for 53.3% of appointments while in April it was 54.8%. GP leaders said the figures raised new concerns about the public not seeking crucial medical advice during the virus crisis.
NHS Digital also reported a slight decline in the GP workforce in April, largely through GPs reducing their hours. There was a 1.2% reduction in full-time equivalent GPs and a 0.1% increase in the number of working GPs. The number of practice non-clinical staff increased by 2.2% and an increase of 8.9% in direct patient care staff.
Royal College of GPs chair Professor Martin Marshall said: “According to figures from our own Research Surveillance Centre, around 70% of consultations are being carried out remotely – via phone or video – with most patients receiving a same day consultation. However, in cases where a patient needs to be seen face to face, such as for a medical examination or vaccination, we will continue to facilitate this in as safe a way as possible.
“As we move into the next steps of the pandemic it’s imperative that the NHS is given the attention and resources it has been at the height of Covid-19. General practice must be adequately resourced to deal with the predicted increase in demand as GPs care for patients who may have put off symptoms during the peak of Covid-19, outpatients managing COVID-19 at home, and those suffering from indirect side-effects of the pandemic, such as associated mental health conditions.”
Professor Marshall added that practice workforce “challenges” remained. He said: “Throughout the pandemic we’ve seen the goodwill of retired GPs returning to support the NHS and we would like to see initiatives introduced to retain these GPs post-pandemic, particularly those who retired early due to undoable workload. During the crisis we’ve seen that general practice functions well without so much bureaucracy, and if this in turn helps keep GPs in the profession then it’s something that should be considered in future plans. With this in mind, we continue our call for urgent publication of a detailed People’s Plan that outlines exactly how the government plans to build the GP workforce, including plans to retain existing GPs in the profession.”