It is over 40 years since the Alma-Ata Declaration asserted the crucial role of primary care in the promotion of the health of people world wide. Since then global health policy has attempted to give effect to the Declaration with varying levels of success. The situation has been no different in Wales.

The Wanless Review in 2003 re-emphasised this message. It stated “ …(t)he current configuration of health services places an insupportable burden on the acute sector and its workforce. This is the most expensive part of the system … (t)he primary care sector in turn is not sufficiently resourced or incentivised to keep patients out of hospital though it is hoped that the new General Medical Services Contract (under discussion at the time of this report) will create such incentives.”

The publication of the final report by the Welsh Parliamentary Review on health and social care ( January 2018) shows that this still remains the main challenge. In response the Welsh Government has published A Healthier Wales and a Strategic Programme for Primary Care. Both these policy statements will have to be matched by a determined political will if they are to prove successful.

In 2018 the Wales Audit office stated that “ (b)etween 2010-11 and 2016-17, total health board spending in Wales …. increased from £5.39 billion to £6.32 billion. However, over the same period, recorded spending on primary care as a percentage of total health board spending in Wales ….. reduced from 25% to 22%.This would suggest that the shift in resources towards primary care that has been at the centre of much of the NHS policy in recent years is not being achieved.” No amount of smart or new types of working will be able to make up for this basic deficit. If primary care is to thrive it needs resources and investment.

This has been highlighted in the number of GPs working in Wales. Between 2004-05 to 2010-11 the number of GPs rose from 1,800 to 2,000. However since then things have been more or less been static until there was a 4% decline between 2016 and 2017. By way of contrast the numbers of hospital consultants has increased by 40% between 2009 and 2017.

However these headline figures do not tell the full picture. While there are now just under 2,000 GPs listed in Wales. Approximately 1,500 of the listed GPs were contractors with the remaining 400+ being salaried. However there is a concern that the official statistics do not present a fully accurate picture particularly in relation to the number of salaried doctors. And there are, in addition, a further 750 doctors working in system who are classified as locums or sessional GPs . This represents a 10% increase since 2016 when figures were first collected.

Vocational training is central to securing a future workforce. The RCGP estimates that Wales needs to have 184 positions to be on a par with the rest of the UK. There has been an increase of 15% in posts over recent years with to 90% being filled but the overall numbers have still to reach UK levels.

The Welsh Government therefore faces a major challenge to increase capacity in its primary care and general practice service. There is abundant evidence that GP workload is increasing both quantitatively and in its complexity. In response there must be an a substantial increase in the workforce as the Welsh Government itself acknowledges the service is not sustainable if it can only survive by the “heroic” efforts of its staff.

Non-medical practice staffing levels has increased by over 7% in the last half decade with approximately 2,500 clinical and 5,000 administrative staff now being employed. Despite these increases the RCGP reports that there are still 20% of GPs do not have access to a practice nurse, 35% to a practice pharmacist and 50% to a physiotherapist. This is clearly not good enough.

The challenge in recruiting and retaining GPs also looms large. Both the GPC and RCGP in Wales still insist that “.. (i)t is a fact that the independent contractor model is best for the patients of Wales and is the most cost-effective option for those who hold the purse strings in both Welsh Government and Health Boards. “ But with 20% of GPs already salaried and with almost twice as many more working as locums and sessional doctors there must an urgent need to review the way they work for and with the NHS.

The Welsh Government acknowledges that the contractor partnerships will continue to be the cornerstone of general practice in Wales. But it also accepts that this model it is no longer a preferred option for many new doctors. They are not attracted to the business ethos, financial risks, administrative demands, inflexibility and investment costs which go with being an independent contractor. So while the concerns of independent contractors must be addressed there is also a need for a more diverse range of career options for future general practitioners.

There are some interesting innovations taking place seeks to address this need. The Primary Care Support Unit in the Cwm Taf Health Board has been in existence since 2002. Social enterprise models for care delivery have been adopted in Bridgend and south Powys. But overall they are still too few to achieve the critical mass that is needed to achieve transformational change.

Somewhat strangely the “GP establishment” seems to fear that health boards and the Welsh Government are rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of becoming direct providers of primary care services. The reality is almost totally the opposite. There are now over 30 directly managed GP practices in Wales but in virtually every case local health boards have found themselves reluctantly obliged to get involved. This lack of enthusiasm for a public service general practice option must be urgently addressed.

The Strategic Programme for Primary Care confirms the Welsh Government’s commitment to delivering primary care services through 64 primary care or clinical networks based on populations of 50-100,000. These networks are tasked with bringing primary and social care services together along with the third sector to cater for the needs of their populations. There is a widespread support for this model both politically and across the professions. The Welsh Government has channelled much of its recent primary care investment through the networks to stimulate local innovation and service improvement. Their success to date is a bit mixed and in some cases they have an uneasy relationship with their local health boards.

Innovation in primary care is also being actively promoted though the £4m Pacesetter / Pathfinder programme which began in 2015 with 24 distinct projects. The objective was to either develop new ways of working or to promote the wider dissemination of new ways of working. The programme received support from Public Health Wales and it is hoped that health boards would mainstream the practice of the successful projects. As these projects come towards the end of their initial phase this is recognised as being critically important. But it has also been appreciated that those areas where services are under the greatest stress are least likely to engage with the exercise.

The Welsh Government has prioritised tacking health inequalities and asserts “..the fundamental Bevan principle that it is clinical need which matters when it comes to deciding treatment by NHS Wales.” In his annual report 2015-16 the Welsh Chief Medical Officer, Dr Frank Atherton, recognised this in stating “ … we make the case that one-size-fits-all health and care services in the traditional sense may not always be the best approach, as they can maintain, and sometimes increase, health inequalities. Instead we argue for an approach which is proportionate to the level of disadvantage which is often referred to as proportionate universalism.” But Welsh Government policy  is at its weakest it comes to outlining how this is to be achieved.

Public Health Wales (PHW) has done a lot of work in identifying health inequalities across Wales and profiling populations to clinical network level. It shows that the difference in prevalence of good health between people living in the least and most deprived areas is already apparent at age 0-15. This gap then grows as age increases, peaking in males at age 65-74 (79% in least deprived vs 52% in most deprived) and in females at age 55-64 (84% vs 56%). And it is in these disadvantaged areas where we also find the greatest prevalence of patients with complex multi-morbidity.

This work by PHW provides an excellent stepping stone for planning the promotion of health and well-being and the delivery of primary care services. But there is little evidence that this is happening on any scale. The Strategic Programme for Primary Care provides a lot of important one-size-fits-all advice for primary care but it only makes the most cursory of references as to how the new, transformed Welsh NHS will address health inequalities on the front line where 90% of health service contacts take place. This is its fundamental weakness.

Welsh health and social care policy strongly argues for a new approach that will put a focus on prevention, which promotes a social model of health and well-being, seeks to address the social determinants of poor health and which will tackle the stubborn continuation of health inequalities. In many policy areas concrete proposals have been put forward to address this agenda. But there in health and social care the details still need to be outlined and put in place.

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