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Rising numbers of patients needing care and a shortage of GPs is threatening to overwhelm the system, doctors and patient groups are warning.

It comes after the pandemic has caused severe disruption to GP practices for more than a year.

Analysis of NHS England data by the Health Foundation found more than 28 million appointments were booked in March, among the highest recorded.

Doctors' leaders say what they are being asked to achieve is "undoable".

The analysis of NHS data in England carried out by the Health Foundation for the BBC also found that that between 2019-20 and 2020-21:

The total number of appointments dropped by 10% - meaning 31 million fewer consultations with GPs and practice nurses
Major shift from face-to-face to remote consultation, with the proportion seen in practices dropping from 79% to 54%
The number of patients referred by GPs for urgent cancer check-ups dropped by 15%, putting lives at risk
The escalating situation has prompted patient groups to call for an urgent review of access to services, amid reports that patients are struggling to get through.

'There is an endless wave of sick patients'

media captionDr Dean Eggitt, a GP in Doncaster, opened his doors to the BBC to show the pressures facing practices
Doncaster-based GP Dr Dean Eggitt has never seen anything like this: "We have almost a tsunami of patients coming to us - it feels like the river has flooded the banks.

"It just keeps coming and coming and coming in this one massive, endless wave of patients who all are ill and need help and input.

"They're sick, they're complex and we've got very few places to send them. I wouldn't want to be my patient right now."

Dr Eggitt's experience is not unique. There were 28.4 million appointments in March, once you include those made with practice nurses as well as GPs - that is one of the highest on record.

But he says he worries most about the "hidden wave of patients who don't get through".

One of those is Sharron, who ended up in hospital after she struggled on at home for weeks getting more and more sick. She was eventually diagnosed with colitis and had lost so much blood, she needed four emergency blood transfusions.

She says a combination of busy phone lines and not wanting to bother the practice meant she deteriorated at home. "When I finally got through I knew I was really poorly, I had never felt so ill in my life."

She was immediately invited in for a consultation and sent to hospital.

'We have just seen the tip of the iceberg so far'
There could be millions of people in a similar position. There were 279 million appointments made with GP practices in England from April 2020 to March 2021, compared with 310 million the year before.

The biggest drops were seen in the Midlands, North East, Yorkshire and East of England, according to the Health Foundation analysis.

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