A GP recruitment crisis has seen some of the busiest doctors in County Durham dealing with as many as 7,000 patients each.

Doctors surgeries in the county with the most and least patients per doctor have been revealed, showing large disparities in GP-to-patient ratios across County Durham.

NHS Digital figures show 561,300 patients were registered at GP practices in the NHS County Durham CCG area at the end of January, along with the equivalent of 350 full-time GPs.

This means if the patients were equally spread, each GP would be dealing with an average of 1,604 patients. But the figures vary drastically across the 60 practices which were recorded as having patients and any FTE practitioners.

The New Seaham Medical Group has the worst ratio in the area, with 7,101 patients per full-time GP, though the surgery only had a GP for 66.67 per cent of the hours of one full-time role.

The Northern Echo: The New Seaham Medical Group. Picture: The Northern EchoThe New Seaham Medical Group. Picture: The Northern Echo

This was followed by Wingate Medical Practice Intrahealth (6,436) and Hallgarth Surgery in Shildon (5,565).

Meanwhile, the County Durham practices with the lowest number of patients per GP are Old Forge Surgery, Middleton-in-Teesdale (723), The Weardale Practice (840) and Blackhall and Peterlee Practice (915).

However, a GP at the New Seaham Medical Group, which includes the Blackhall and Peterlee practice, said the figures are not a true reflection of the situation. 

Dr Kamal Sidhu said: "We have many members of our clinical team that work across both, the Blackhall and Peterlee Practice (one of the practices with least number of patients per GP in the report) and New Seaham Medical group (named as the one with the most number of patients per GP).

"As the staff including our GPs work across both sites, the figures are not a true reflection and actual GP time in New Seaham is significantly higher.

"We also have full time advanced nurse practitioner sessions at New Seaham Medical group. We have been accredited as an associate GP training practice since February and have GP trainee based there for a part of the week.

"We already have a practice pharmacist, mental health link worker as well as a physiotherapist working from the practice itself.

"We have been trying to recruit more GP time and our aim is to bring in more GP sessions and establish it as a full training practice in future."

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Dr Stewart Findlay, chief officer of NHS County Durham Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) said:  "In response to a national challenge in GP recruitment, we have been working with our practices to ensure that they are able to respond to the increasing scale and complexity of demand on primary care services.

"Covid-19 remains the biggest challenge to primary care, not only placing additional workload upon practices, which are on the frontline of vaccination and treatment, but also affecting our workforce resulting in staff illness and isolation.

"Over 250,000 primary care appointments are delivered each month in the county and it should be recognised that appointments are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the work of primary care, which also includes delivery of immunisations and vaccinations, chronic disease management, condition and medication reviews, multi-disciplinary team working, the list goes on.”

The Northern Echo: Dr Stewart Findlay, chief officer of NHS County Durham CCGDr Stewart Findlay, chief officer of NHS County Durham CCG

He added that work has been taking place over the last few years to diversify practice teams to cope with the complexity of health and care needs of the population.

Dr Findlay said: "In relation to our GP workforce, who provide almost half of all primary care appointments in County Durham, the CCG has an established a very successful Career Start programme, aimed at attracting new clinicians to the workforce, and we are part of regional and national programmes focussed upon retaining

"Primary care teams now consist of not only GPs and practice nurses but also mental health practitioners, pharmacists, physiotherapists, podiatrists and social prescribing link workers.

"Developing our workforce in this way helps us to deliver a more personalised approach to patient and family care and ensure that general practice can meet both the needs and expectations of patients."

The British Medical Association said large disparities in GP to patient ratios throughout England are "wholly unacceptable" and called on the Government to address the longstanding issues.

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Dr Kieran Sharrock, BMA England GP committee deputy chairman, said: “This data shows worryingly large disparities in GP to patient ratios across the country and it is wholly unacceptable that patients should have to experience such variations in access to care.

“The Government has failed to address the longstanding recruitment and retention issues in general practice and we now have a very unsustainable and unsafe situation where fewer GPs are being tasked with the responsibility of caring for significantly more patients."

Dr Sharrock said the Government has not paid enough attention to the primary care backlog and should provide "urgent and substantial support" to enable high quality care.

The Royal College of GPs said that between September 2015 and December 2021 the number of patients per GP increased by 10%, the number of fully qualified, full-time equivalent GPs fell by 5 per cent and the population grew by 4 per cent.

The Department of Health and Social Care said there were over 1,600 more FTE doctors in December 2021 than two years previously, with a record-breaking number starting training last year.

A spokeswoman added: “We have invested £520 million to improve access and expand GP capacity during the pandemic."

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