Complaints about GPs have almost tripled in a year, with the “vast majority” of concerns relating to difficulties accessing appointments, the NHS watchdog said.
Patients’ groups said the figures reflected “a worrying decline” in the service being offered, and growing public concern about problems accessing face-to-face consultations.
They raised fears that the situation was continuing to deteriorate after GPs were told they could stop providing many routine services, and focus on the booster rollout.
The figures from inspectorate the Care Quality Commission show 8,267 patients contacted the inspectorate between January and November of last year, to report a poor experience of services run by GPs.
The figure is a near-tripling of the 3,001 reported over the same period last year.
Tip of the iceberg
Patients’ groups warned that the cases reported to the NHS inspectorate were likely to represent “the tip of the iceberg” as most people who were unhappy with their care would be unlikely to go to such lengths.
Before the pandemic around 80 percent of appointments with GPs were face-to-face.
This dropped to 47 per cent during the first wave of the pandemic, reaching 63 per cent in November, after repeated interventions by ministers.
Dennis Reed, from Silver Voices, a campaign group for the elderly, said the figures on complaints to the CQC were likely to reflect “the tip of the iceberg”.
“Situations have to be pretty extreme for people to go as far as to complain to the inspectorate,” he said, “For all of these thousands of cases there will be many more people who struggle to get to see their GP, and don’t complain, but don’t get their symptoms seen, or don’t get them seen until it's far more serious”.
Getting a face-to-face appointment
“These figures reflect a really worrying decline in the service, and I worry it will worsen again now that GPs are focussing on boosters, so patients will struggle again to get a face-to-face appointment."
Health officials have told GPs that until April they can stop providing many services, such as health checks for the over 75s, but that they will still be paid for them, while they focus on the booster rollout.
CQC's chief inspector of primary medical services, Rosie Benneyworth, told a recent board meeting: “We are seeing a significant increase in feedback on care for primary medical services. The vast majority of this relates to concerns that we're seeing about access to care in general practice.”
Routine inspections of GP surgeries have been on hold since the start of the pandemic.
Dr Benneyworth said the regulator intended to follow up such concerns, which could mean some unannounced inspections, saying GPs needed to be “mindful” of the limitations of remote appointments.
The figures show a rise in the total number of patients providing feedback to the regulator.
Dr Benneyworth told colleagues: “The vast majority of that increase, unfortunately, has been negative sentiment rather than positive sentiment, but we are monitoring that very closely.”
The figures show that the number of patients providing feedback about a good experience rose from 804 to 1,462.
Professor Martin Marshall, chairman of the Royal College of GPs, said: “GPs and our teams were working under intense workload and workforce pressures before Covid, but the pandemic has exacerbated this. The size of the qualified workforce fell by almost 6 per cent between September 2015 and August 2021 while the number of patients has continued to grow meaning that the ratio of patients to GPs has increased by more than 10 per cent.”
“Across the country, general practice teams are working incredibly hard in very difficult circumstances to ensure patients receive good, safe and appropriate care,” he said.
An NHS spokesman said: “The latest GP appointment figures show that general practice is working hard to ensure patients get the care they need, with more than 30 million appointments delivered in October and in response to patient feedback we have created a £250m access plan for general practices to improve access for patients and to support GP teams this winter.
“General practice continues to play a vital role in delivering the fastest and most successful vaccination programme in NHS history, with more than 3.5 million people vaccinated by GPs last month – 2.5 million more than during September.”