One in five (19%) people decide not to contact their GP surgery even when they need to, with major reasons being worries over getting an appointment and long waits, according to official data.
An Office for National Statistics (ONS) survey on the impact of winter pressures, carried out last month, shows that people who feel depressed, who live in the most deprived areas of England, and women are significantly more likely to say they abandon plans to contact their GP.
The representative poll of 4,494 people across Great Britain found that, of those who decided not to contact their GP practice when needed in the last month, the most common reasons given were thinking the wait for an appointment would be too long (56%), being unable to contact their GP practice at the times required (26%) and being worried about the burden on the NHS (24%).
After deciding not to contact their GP, people turned to managing the condition themselves (57%), seeking advice on the internet (22%) and seeing a pharmacist (14%).
Of these, 37% said it was easy or very easy to make an appointment and 43% reported it was difficult or very difficult.
The data has been highlighted by the Liberal Democrats, with its health spokesperson, Daisy Cooper, calling on the Government to recruit more GPs and give patients a legal right to see a GP within a week, or 24 hours if it is urgent.
She said: “It is deeply worrying that millions of people are trying and failing to see their GP because it’s just so difficult to get an appointment.
“This could lead to countless missed or delayed diagnoses as people go without the care they need, creating a ticking time bomb for our NHS.
“These damning figures must act as a wake-up call for the Government. It’s time for ministers to finally recruit the extra GPs we were promised, and give patients a guaranteed GP appointment within a week when they need one, or 24 hours in an emergency.”
One woman, aged 39, told the ONS: “I’ve tried to make an appointment for my son’s pre-school injections but I’ve been unable to contact the GP surgery as the phone lines are too busy and the online system is always temporarily unavailable when I try to access [it]”.
The ONS data also revealed that around one in five (21%) adults were waiting for a hospital appointment, test, or to start receiving medical treatment through the NHS.
Those waiting for NHS treatment reported that, in the past month, waiting had negatively affected their well-being (61%), ability to exercise (41%), mobility (36%) and 19% reported that waiting for NHS treatment had affected their work.
A quarter of these had to reduce their working hours while 51% reported changing the tasks they do.
Professor Kamila Hawthorne, chairwoman of the Royal College of GPs, said: “GPs and their hard-working practice teams are working tirelessly to deliver safe, timely care for patients.
“More patient consultations are being delivered every month than before the pandemic, with more than 71% delivered within a week and almost half on the same day they are booked.
“However, there are simply not enough GPs to fulfil a legal commitment of seeing every patient within a week – it just won’t work.
“What’s more, not every patient will need to be seen within a week – or two – and imposing such a target could perversely impact on patients who want to book regular or routine appointments in advance.”
She said it was “upsetting to hear that some are putting off booking an appointment altogether” but “most patients understand that GPs and our teams are doing their best to provide the right choice of appointments and deliver high-quality and appropriate care under unprecedented pressures”.
She added: “The last GP patient survey showed that once patients secure an appointment, the vast majority are satisfied with the care they receive.
“Without general practice, the rest of the NHS will collapse, yet the latest data for England shows that numbers of fully qualified, full-time equivalent GPs continue to fall – by 852 since 2019, while our workload has risen by 9%. In some areas a qualified GP is now responsible for more than 2,500 patients.
“The crisis in general practice is not the fault of dedicated GPs, it is a result of decades of underfunding and inadequate workforce planning.”