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Deloitte Centre for Health Solutions: Primary care workforce facing demographic time bomb

8 May 2012

  • Increasing age profile of GPs and practice nurses is creating major primary care supply challenge;
  • 22% of GPs are aged over 55, compared to 17% in 20001;
  • 10,000 GPs intend to retire within five years2;
  • Almost one in five practice nurses are aged 55 or over3;
  • Ageing UK population expected to have the greatest impact on demands on general practice.

Rising life expectancy, accompanied by increasingly complex long-term health conditions, a stretched primary care workforce and unprecedented financial and healthcare reform are amongst the greatest challenges facing primary care in the UK, according to a new report by the Deloitte Centre for Health Solutions. 

'Primary Care: Today and Tomorrow', examines the capacity and capability of general practice now and in the future, with a focus on GPs and general practice nurses. The report highlights the need for general practice to work differently to cope effectively with the increasing demands it faces.  This will be especially pertinent as GPs take on the role of commissioners of local healthcare services.

Karen Taylor, Deloitte UK Centre for Health Solutions research director, comments: “Primary care, and in particular care provided by GPs and practice nurses, has been the cornerstone of the NHS since its inception in 1948.  With responsibility for 90% of all patient contact in the NHS, GPs not only provide care, they also act as gatekeepers to the rest of the NHS.  In future, GPs will also have a new role as commissioners of all the healthcare services needed by their patients.  They will need to maintain their role as providers of safe, good quality care in the face of this new commissioning challenge, new regulatory and performance management systems and a requirement to provide more care with less money.”

Against this backdrop, an ageing general practice workforce is creating a significant primary care supply challenge in the NHS.  22% of GPs are aged over 55, compared to 17% in 2000,1 and as many as 10,000 have expressed an intention to retire within five years.2  Increasing numbers of GPs are salaried or work part-time and there has been a growing reliance on practice nurses, many of whom are also approaching retirement.3

At the same time, new entrants and returners to work have fallen.1  Given the many years it takes to train GPs and general practice nurses, any immediate recruitment shortfalls can only be met by qualified practitioners from abroad.  However, changes to employment regulations and agreements to limit recruitment from countries facing similar challenges means overseas hiring will not be a viable solution, and will only compound the strains on the GP workforce.

If the pattern of GP consultations remains unchanged, there could be a total of 433 million consultations annually by 2035. Of this number, 180 million would be for people aged 65 and over, nearly double the current figure.

Taylor explains: “Whilst important, the traditional ways of working, which rely on face to face consultations between the patient and the GP, and increasingly the practice nurse, are no longer sustainable.  Additionally, rising life expectancy is bringing about increasingly complex long-term health issues requiring frequent GP visits.  GPs need to adopt new models of care, using new technology and other practice staff more effectively, working closely with patients to provide more care in the community, with an emphasis on shared decision making and self management.  GPs will still need to act as gatekeepers, but also increasingly as care navigators.

“The Health and Social Act has provided more clarity as to what the reforms mean for general practice in England.  New ways of working offer solutions that can help bridge the gap between increased demand for primary care and growing capacity and capability constraints.  However, what they all have in common is the need for primary care staff to work differently.”

- Ends -

1 Source: NHS Information Centre General Practice Bulletin 2000-2010
2 Source: BMA national survey of GP Opinion 2011
3 RCN Labour Market Review, Difficult Times, Difficult Choices, The UK nursing labour market review 2009

Notes to editors:
Visit the Deloitte UK Centre for Health Solutions website for more details of forthcoming reports.
About Deloitte
In this press release, references to Deloitte are references to Deloitte LLP, which is among the country's leading professional services firms.

Deloitte LLP is the United Kingdom member firm of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited (“DTTL”), a UK private company limited by guarantee, whose member firms are legally separate and independent entities. Please see for a detailed description of the legal structure of DTTL and its member firms.

The information contained in this press release is correct at the time of going to press.

Member of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited.

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Celine Gordine-Wright
Deloitte LLP
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