THOUSANDS of patients are being forced to wait longer than a month to see their GP in Oxfordshire as practices struggle to recruit enough doctors to cope with demand.

With GP numbers in ‘freefall’, coupled with a growing and ageing population, experts have warned of a ‘perfect storm’ as patients struggle to get appointments at packed surgeries across the county.

More than 13,600 patients in Oxfordshire were forced to wait longer than four weeks for a GP appointment in March, according to the latest NHS figures available.

UPDATE: Readers tell us their average waiting times in online poll

The stats also show nearly a fifth (17.7 per cent) of all patients making appointments during March had to wait longer than two weeks.

Based on the most recent GP survey in Oxfordshire, the county is 21 GPs short, while in order to meet the needs of a growing population, more than 100 GPs will need to be recruited in the next 10 years.

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The figures are based on projections from Oxfordshire Clinical Commissioning Group (OCCG) which holds the purse strings for NHS care in the county.

However, executive director of Healthwatch Oxfordshire, Rosalind Pearce, said unless action is taken to make becoming a GP ‘more attractive’ to young doctors the situation was only going to get worse.

She said: “These figures come as no surprise to us, as patients are constantly telling Healthwatch Oxfordshire about the difficulties they face in getting a GP appointment.

“The combination of increasing demand and a shortage of GPs is creating a ‘perfect storm’ which is not just confined to this county.

“However, it’s worth pointing out that Oxfordshire is leading the way in initiatives to combat this, such as telephone triage systems at surgeries.

“But until General Practice becomes a more attractive proposition for newly-qualified doctors, it is likely that the problem is going to continue to get worse.”

As of March last year, 18 per cent of Oxfordshire’s GPs were aged over 55, meaning they will retire within the next ten years.

Ms Pearce also highlighted the impact the shortage of GPs is having on other health services adding: “In the meantime, patients will need to give serious thought as to whether the GP is the appropriate place to seek help, or whether alternatives such as pharmacies would be more suitable.”

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Last week the GP recruitment crisis forced a Bicester surgery to start turning away new patients.

Montgomery Surgery announced it was suspending all new registrations as it is short-staffed.

Speaking about the long waits, a spokesperson for OCCG said: “The data from NHS Digital includes people who chose to book a GP appointment four weeks in advance: for example, if they need a review of their treatment or medication after four weeks. In addition, there is likely to be a seasonal variation because there is usually more demand during the winter months.”

Schemes to cut waiting lists include the extended-hours GP access hubs, which have offered around 79,000 extra routine appointments at evenings and weekends in Oxfordshire in the last year.

OCCG also said it had stepped up international recruitment of GPs and also launched various incentives such as a flexible careers scheme to boost retention.

The news comes as analysis by the Nuffield Trust for the BBC this week revealed the number of GPs per 100,000 people had fallen from nearly 65 in 2014 to 60 last year (58.4 in the Thames Valley).

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It marks the first sustained fall in GP numbers in the UK for 50 years.

Responding to the research by the Nuffield Trust BMA GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey, said: “In recent years, GP numbers have been in freefall as repeated government pledges to boost numbers have fallen flat.

“Family doctors are under intense pressure to meet rising demand from a growing population, many of whom are elderly and living with increasingly complex conditions, and in many cases, workload has become unmanageable, leading doctors to reduce their hours or retire.

“As more doctors leave the profession, the workload gets heavier still for those left behind, and the situation gets far more serious for both patients and staff.”