Steve October 13, 2021
daily-mail-report-on-gps-seeing-fewer-patients-on-fridays-needs-more-context

13 October 2021

What was claimed

GPs are treating 200,000 fewer patients on Fridays with appointment availability getting progressively worse during the week.

Our verdict

This figure is correct for July 2021 in England, but comes with important caveats. The drop in appointments on Friday is more marked when compared with Monday, when GPs are busiest, rather than the rest of the week. The Friday drop is also a longstanding one, and the figures can’t tell us about “availability” or how appointment supply compares with demand.

“GPs conducted an average of 1.29 million consultations each Monday in July but just 1.09 million on Fridays—a fall of 16 per cent.”

An article in the Daily Mail, published as part of the newspaper’s ongoing Let’s See GPs Face to Face campaign, has claimed that GPs treat on average 200,000 fewer patients overall per day on Fridays compared to Mondays, a 16% drop.

It states that in July, GPs conducted an average of 1.29 million consultations each Monday but just 1.09 million each Friday. The article appears to link this difference with the changing work patterns of GPs, saying that it comes “as the surging number of part-time GPs enjoy long weekends off”.

The figures showing that fewer GP appointments take place on a Friday—which apply to practices in England only—are correct and come from data published by NHS Digital. However the article, which is part of a raft of recent coverage in different newspapers highlighting concerns over access to GP appointments, misses some important context.

The gap is so marked partly because Mondays are extra busy

NHS Digital’s data shows that Mondays are consistently the busiest day of the week for GPs, and—as the Daily Mail article acknowledges—the average number of appointments held each day then gets progressively lower throughout the week.

That means that while the Mail was correct to say there was a 16% fall in appointments on Friday compared to Monday, that gap appears less marked if you factor in other days of the week. For example, our analysis of the data shows if you look at the figures for July 2021 and compare Fridays with the average number of appointments from Monday to Thursday, the fall is just 9%, with GPs seeing on average 102,500 patients fewer.

So while it’s right to say the GPs hold fewer appointments on a Friday, if you compare to the rest of the week rather than just the busiest day—Monday—the difference is much less.

GPs holding fewer appointments on a Friday is nothing new

While the Daily Mail appears to link the July 2021 figures for appointments with increases in the number of part-time GPs, a look at earlier data suggests that fewer GP appointments being held on a Friday is a long-term trend. 

Available data for the past three years shows that, if anything, the gap between the number of appointments held on a Monday and a Friday is actually narrowing slightly. From August 2020 to July 2021 there were on average 188,000 fewer appointments on a Friday than a Monday. This is less than the average difference from August 2019 to July 2020 (212,500) and in the 11 months for which GP appointment data was available to July 2019 (223,000).

So it does not appear that fewer appointments on a Friday is a new phenomenon, or one that can necessarily be linked to any recent increase in the number of part-time GPs. 

It’s worth noting a slight caveat about comparing longer-term trends in GP appointments. NHS Digital, which publishes the statistics, has warned that “the variation in approach to appointment management between practice is likely to be greater than usual during the coronavirus outbreak” and that “users should therefore exhibit appropriate caution in drawing conclusions from comparing current appointment volumes with those recorded before the pandemic”.

However when we asked NHS Digital if that meant longer-term comparisons were still possible it told us: “We would still encourage people to use the data as a reliable source just quoting possible minor discrepancies due to practice level differences in recording and Covid-19.” So we can say with some confidence that the figures from July 2021 are not unusual for the past three years, even if very precise comparisons come with a slight health warning. 

These figures don’t tell us about supply or demand

Finally, it’s important to understand that the NHS Digital data tells us how many GP appointments on average took place on a given day of the week but crucially not how the demand and supply of appointments compares. That means we can’t rely on the figures—as the Mail does—to describe appointment “availability”. They only show an average of how many appointments ended up taking place each day of the week in each month. 

Crucially some GPs argue that fewer appointments take place on a Friday because there’s less patient demand, not less supply from GPs. 

Dr Mark Sanford-Wood, deputy chair of the British Medical Association’s GP committee, told Full Fact: “It’s really down to the way that patients want their appointments—nothing more complicated than that. 

“It is common that demand on a Monday is higher than the rest of the week as patients contact practices following the weekend.”

He added: “Most studies show that Monday demand is 60-70% higher than Wednesday to Friday demand, with Tuesday demand being around 30% higher. The same studies show that Friday demand changes with fewer appointments for routine care, but more problems presenting on the day with a perceived urgency as the weekend approaches.”

So while the NHS data shows fewer appointments are held on a Friday, it can’t tell us why that is the case—and specifically whether it’s down to fewer patients wanting one, fewer GPs working or other factors. 

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