Poorer patients get least GP time, study reveals

As reported by The Guardian, England’s poorest people have the shortest appointments with their GP and the richest get the longest, a study reveals

People from the most deprived areas get the least amount of time when seeing their family doctor, despite having the worst underlying health in the population, researchers found. While those in the richest areas get 11.2 minutes on average, people in the most deprived neighbourhoods get 10.7 minutes, according to the Health Foundation.

The disparity underlines the inequality in access to NHS care, and has prompted concern that people on low incomes are missing out on opportunities to improve their health.

Health Foundation experts led by Mai Stafford, a principal data analyst at the thinktank, uncovered the gap from studying records of 1.2m consultations involving 190,036 patients from 2014-16.

In findings reported in the British Journal of General Practice, she and her colleagues said it was “particularly concerning” that people from deprived areas had shorter consultations.

They linked the situation to poorer areas having fewer family doctors than better-off areas, with GP surgeries having heavier workloads because patients are on average sicker than their richer neighbours.

“These findings add further detail to an already stark picture of health inequality in England. Those living in the poorest areas of the country already tend to experience worse health and have fewer doctors per patient,” said Stafford. “That they also tend to have less time with their GP, even when they have greater need, is especially worrying at a time when COVID-19 has further widened the gap in health between the richest and poorest.”

The inequity is so great that a patient from a deprived area who has underlying physical and mental health conditions gets the same amount of time with a GP – 10.9 minutes – as someone from a wealthy area who has no underlying health problems.

The researchers concluded that “there could be unmet need among patients with complex care needs, particularly patients living in deprived areas with both mental and physical health conditions.”

Prof Martin Marshall, the chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, said: “Access to GP care should not be dependent on where a patient lives. These findings are concerning, but not altogether surprising as we know that areas of high deprivation also tend to have some of the most pronounced GP shortages.

“The paradox is that people living in more deprived areas also tend to have a greater number of long-term health conditions and more complex health needs, and therefore often require greater access to GP care and services.” He called on NHS bosses to urgently try to attract more GPs to work in poorer areas.

NHS England has tried in recent years to tackle the problem of “under-doctoring” of poorer places, as well as some coastal and rural areas, by offering GP trainees £20,000 incentives. But it is unclear how many newly qualified doctors have started their career in general practice as a result of that scheme.

The government missed a target it set in 2015 to increase the number of GPs in England by 5,000. Boris Johnson has pledged to increase the GP workforce by 6,000 by 2024.

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