Are GPs better value than hamsters?

Image caption More expensive than primary care

A popular anecdote among doctors is that it costs more to insure a hamster than it does to pay for a year of GP care.

They have a point. GP surgeries get just over £150 per patient per year.

With the average patient seeing their doctor five times a year that works out at £30 a visit.

It is why many other nations look at the NHS's system of general practice with envy.

But the question being asked now is whether GPs are being squeezed too much.

That may seem strange to ask of a profession where most GPs who are partners in a practice earn in excess of £100,000 a year.

But news that investment in general practice has fallen by £400m in real terms over the past three years warrants further investigation.

It is worth noting that the figures - highlighted by the Royal College of GPs but based on official data from the Health and Social Care Information Centre - have not been disputed by the government.

That in itself is unusual in a system as complex as the NHS where statistics can be cherry picked to prove almost any point.

But what does this mean in practice?

Less time with patients

Talking to GPs at the RCGP's annual conference it is clear the concerns are real.

Many cited the increased demands being placed on them - the number of GP consultations has risen by a third since the mid 1990s and now top 300m a year.

Vikram Tanna, a GP from Manchester, admits his work/life balance has improved since the changes 10 years ago, which allowed GPs to stop doing weekends and nights.

But he says his major concern is that he does not have enough time with patients.

"Consultations are meant to last 10 minutes, but patients increasingly have complex conditions, they expect more and there is more we can do. There is just not enough time."

Stuart Sutton, who has just become a partner in a practice in east London, agrees.

"I have just taken over from someone who has worked here for 25 years.

"My concern is that I won't get to know the patients like he did. That is important. Knowing the local community, knowing their history. Without that you can't give the kind of care you want to."

But it is not just doctors who are feeling the pinch. Shelley Verity works as a practice nurse in Bradford.

She says this year her workload has increased because of the introduction of the shingles vaccine for the elderly and the expansion of the winter flu jabs to children.

"This is happening at a time when money is being taken away from us," she adds.

But isn't this just a reflection of what is happening across society?

After all, most households would argue they are having to make the family budget stretch further, while town halls are still trying to work out how cuts in funding of over a quarter can be managed.

GPs believe that misses the point - as Dr Tanna points out.

"The government likes to say it has protected the health service. It hasn't - that is what we are saying."