A number of news outlets reported today that 34 million patients in England - half of the UK population - will fail to get an appointment with their GP this year.
The Independent, ITV news, the Mirror, Sky news and the Sun all reported similar claims, based on a press release by the Royal College of GPs (RCGP). The Daily Mail reported a much larger figure of 340 million occasions when, they say, patients had been unable to book a slot with their GP last year.
The Department of Health in contrast said: "It's complete nonsense to suggest that 34 million people won't be able to get a doctor's appointment this year. Misleading extrapolations of partial data have been used to generate a sensationalist headline."
The Mail's figure doesn't reflect what the RCGP said: 340 million represents the total number of estimated GP visits last year, so those that did go ahead, rather than the claimed number of failed attempts to get appointments.
As the Department of Health highlighted, the claim that 34 million patients will fail to get an appointment this year is also seriously problematic. The two datasets can't be used in the way the Royal College is trying to use them.
Leaving aside how the 34 million patients figure was calculated, if you got the impression that this is about the number of people able or unable to make appointments, it isn't - it's about numbers of appointments.
340 million appointments ... maybe
The last recorded data on the number of appointments at GP surgeries found an estimated 300 million GP consultations a year took place in 2008, but no figures are available since then.
To compensate, an NHS report used past trends to estimate that in 2013 the number could stand at around 340 million. That is, 340 million visits to the GP in 2013, not 340 million different patients.
One in 10 people couldn't get an appointment last time they tried
The prediction of the proportion missing out on an appointment is derived from the latest GP patient survey. This found one in 10 people registered with a GP were unable to arrange a time to see or speak to someone on the last occasion they tried to do so.
Comparing that to the 340 million appointments expected to have been made in 2013 would mean 34 million occasions where a patient was unable to see or speak to a doctor the last time they wanted to.
That doesn't entirely make sense: one in 10 people failed to get an appointment on last attempt, but 340 million doesn't refer to the total previous attempts to make an appointment in 2013, it's the number of appointments that were actually supposed to have happened.
Appointments don't necessarily equal the number of patients either; there could be 17 million people needing to visit the GP regularly, say 10 times a year, and a further 85 million needing two appointments per year - there's no way to tell with these figures.
The next annual GP survey results should be able to tell us whether the proportion of those who missed out on a GP appointment increased or decreased over 2013/14. But we still don't have the information to say how many people are affected, and certainly not how many people failed to get an appointment with their GP at all.
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