Published: 00:01, 22 January 2019
Doctor shortages in Kent have reached a "dangerous situation", it has been claimed after two areas were revealed among the worst GP per patient numbers in England.
Swale is the worst in the entire country, while Thanet was the fourth worst, according to NHS figures.
The numbers show Swale has one doctor for every 3,342 patients - three times more than the best area in the country, Rushcliffe in Nottinghamshire.
In Thanet, there is one doctor per 2,522 patients - putting the area in the lowest 2% nationally with only Bradford, Horsham and Mid Sussex and Swale in a worse position.
Campaigners say the shocking statistics mean health bosses need to change their strategy.
The crisis across Kent is highlighted in an analysis by KentOnline showing five out of the county's eight NHS areas ranked in the lowest 9% in the whole country.
All of Kent's clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) were in the lowest third nationally.
But Canterbury and Coastal CCG - covering Canterbury, Whitstable and Herne Bay - was the best area at 1,942 patients per doctor, ranking it in the lowest 29%.
South Kent Coast CCG (which covers Folkestone, Dover, Deal and Romney Marsh) was second best in the county but still in the bottom 20% with 2,047 patients per doctor.
Meanwhile, West Kent CCG (Tonbridge, Maidstone and Sevenoaks and Tunbridge Wells) has one GP for every 2,123 patients placing it in the lowest 13% in England.
Overall in Kent, there are 101 fewer GPs in the county compared to 2015. The latest figures show Kent has 1,093 GP doctors - down from 1,194 in September 2015.
Surgeries in the county are trying to recruit new GPs with 20 vacancies listed on the Kent Local Medical Committee website.
But this falls well short of the 181 doctors needed to reach the national average, according to a council report due to be discussed this week.
Kent lost 39 GPs in a year between September 2017 and the same month last year, the papers revealed.
Practice managers across the county are struggling to fill GP posts with more than half (53%) unfilled after "at least a year", 12% of all posts vacant and have to rely on locum doctors - who make up 8% of the workforce.
The number of nurses countywide has dropped by 29 from 744 in 2015 to 715 in 2018.
All nurse vacancies in Kent and Medway have been vacant for more than six months, the report added.
NHS leaders will present a report to county councillors at County Hall in Maidstone on Friday outlining a 12-point plan costing £1.5 million.
The plan's aims include an "international GP and primary care recruitment campaign", introducing and developing new roles through the Kent and Medway Medical School, leadership schemes and flexible working schemes to reduce the number of locum posts into full-time positions.
Cllr Sue Chandler, chair of Kent County Council's health and scrutiny committee, said the committee requested a report to find out what actions health bosses were taking "to address the primary care workforce challenges".
"The committee sees workforce as an integral issue that is threaded through so many reports regularly presented to them," Cllr Chandler added.
Dr Coral Jones, a member of the Save Our NHS in Kent (SONIK) campaign group, has now called on the NHS to rethink its plan.
She said: "This is a dangerous situation and requires immediate action by NHS bosses including urgent investment in primary care.
"Where there are large numbers of patients per doctor, GPs will become stressed and burnt out, practice staff demoralised and it is dangerous if patients are unable to reach care when needed.
"Health workers want to do their best for patients, not limit access. As a doctor, it’s an impossible situation."
Dr Jones said the number of surgeries in Thanet had already been slashed by a third in the last three years leaving just 14 open as the NHS plans more cuts by introducing "three centralised health care superhubs".
She said losing services in areas like Thanet and Swale "is not the answer" especially when it they are areas with high medical demands, poor transport links and high levels of deprivation.
Dr Jones added: “Thanet and Swale include some of the most deprived parts of the country. Deprivation and social inequality, especially among older residents, cause poor health. Thanet and Swale need more health and social care located in the neighbourhood, not less.
"We need to fund modern premises, training for all staff in a practice and the resources to build up community health teams for integrated local care.
"This is the only way we will attract and keep GPs, while at the same time ensuring good treatment for patients."
Caroline Selkirk, managing director of east Kent CCGs, said: "We know that the recruitment of GPs remains a significant challenge for local GP practices that are responsible for recruiting their own staff.
"However, not all care needs to be provided by a GP and a GP practice will recruit a broad range of clinicians to meet their patients’ needs.
"NHS Thanet CCG continues to work with all our practices to help make sure patients have access to the right type of clinician when they need it.
"We have helped groups of GP practices set up Extended Primary Care Networks to offer a number of additional services across Thanet.
"For instance, the Acute Response Team provides an immediate response for patients who can be cared for at home with an appropriate care package to relieve pressure on local GPs.
"The Thanet area has also recently recruited two GPs through the International GP recruitment project. A third wave of recruitment is set to start in March.
"The opening of the Kent Medical School scheduled for 2020 will also support our efforts to recruit locally in the longer term."