Sutton GP surgery warns it will struggle to cope with population boom with services becoming ‘overstretched’

Doctors at Sutton’s Robin Hood Lane Health Centre have expressed concern that their vital services will become overstretched due to Sutton’s rapid population increase. The centre’s GPs have warned that the current NHS funding restraints are pushing them to work overtime to keep themselves sustainable.

While the centre is experiencing pressures felt by struggling GP surgeries across the country, they are particularly concerned because of the dramatic development boom that has taken place in Sutton over the past decade. This phenomenon, epitomised by the recent plans to build 970 flats on the site of B&Q, will inevitably boost the number of people who require local medical services.

Resident GPs Dr Amit Seyan and Dr Naomi Bennett both live in the borough and have worked at the surgery for a number of years. They told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) that the centre’s position just off the high street means the new builds by Sutton station are in their catchment area, and that a sudden increase in population could overwhelm the service.

Read more: Sutton B&Q to be bulldozed so 970 new flats can be built in 8 towers as tall as 21-storeys high

Plans for a new development called Chalk Gardens on the site of B&Q in Sutton.
Plans for a new development called Chalk Gardens on the site of B&Q in Sutton.
(Image: St George)

Dr Bennett told the LDRS: “Between the two censuses in 2010 and 2021, there are 20,000 more residents in Sutton and more so since 2021 to 23. We also used to have 23 surgeries in Sutton and now we’re onto 22, it’s a numbers game.”

They also feared that Sutton Council had not provided them with adequate support and consultation in light of the new developments, which they said would have been helpful to know how they could accommodate the change.

Dr Bennett said: “I know schools get consulted on whether they absorb the extra children coming into the area. I think there have even been suggestions that we could build a new school, and that was rejected and instead, it was decided that they could add new classes to the schools.”

“However, other public services like primary care haven’t been asked. I know Councillor Ed Parsely is trying to get some answers for us about what the process is, but they haven’t been very forthcoming.”

Dr Seyan was born in Sutton and has grown up around the centre. His father has also been a GP at the surgery for nearly 40 years and is retiring next month.

Dr Amit Seyan poses for photos in Robin Hood medical practice in Sutton in south London in London, Britain 20 March 2024. Facundo Arrizabalaga/MyLondon
Dr Amit Seyan poses for photos in Robin Hood medical practice in Sutton in south London in London, Britain 20 March 2024. Facundo Arrizabalaga/MyLondon
(Image: Facundo Arrizabalaga/MyLondon)

He said he’s seen loads of changes in the borough throughout his lifetime but still thinks it’s a great place to live. However, he admits the developments will have a huge impact on what he sees as the area’s already stretched health services.

He told the LDRS: “We’re lucky in this practice that we can take more patients because we’re able to expand. However, Grove Road which is also in the same area has struggled and has had to close their list because they are not able to expand.”

However, both GPs believe that there are still more immediate pressures facing centres like theirs. Chronic staff shortages across the NHS and rigid NHS funding have placed them in a position that Dr Bennett says could affect their primary ability to care.

Dr Bennett said: “The British Medical Association (BMA) suggests that 72 per 1,000 patients per week is a reasonable amount. At the moment we’re at 92, and we’re doing more than the BMA considers a safe number to see a day.”

“Where it gets difficult is once we have reached a safe capacity which for us is slightly higher than what the BMA recommends, there is no overspill.

“It’s a bit like having the safe number of seats on an aeroplane. An aeroplane has a safe capacity to ensure that everyone gets a seatbelt. The healthcare industry is similar, it’s a very high-risk industry. People can get overworked and tired.

“You then get decision fatigue, so if you’re seeing 50 patients, you don’t want to be number 50.”

A general view of Robin Hood medical practice in Sutton in south London in London, Britain 20 March 2024. Facundo Arrizabalaga/MyLondon
A general view of Robin Hood medical practice in Sutton in south London in London, Britain 20 March 2024. Facundo Arrizabalaga/MyLondon
(Image: Facundo Arrizabalaga/MyLondon)

Staff shortages are a pervasive issue for GP surgeries across the country. Only last week in Parliament, MPs told the house how chronic shortages are putting GPs on the front-line and leading to more stretched services overall.

In response, GP surgeries and professional bodies across the UK have said a fundamental change to the way the system is funded, or we could risk a dip in the public’s trust in the NHS. Dr Bennett said: “We need to work together to work out how the NHS is managed, it shouldn’t be a political tennis ball.”

In an open letter to their 15,00 patients, Robin Hood Health Centre laid out the way these shortages and other issues around rising costs have affected the centre’s staff and the patients themselves.

“Over the last few years, Robin Hood Lane Health Centre and all GP surgeries nationally, have been under increased financial pressure. Just like in your households, we have seen huge increases in all our costs – everything we buy costs more, our energy costs have spiralled, and our staffing costs have also increased.”

“Since 2008 this has added up to 52% real terms funding cut to primary care, as our funding from the government has not matched inflation. The effects of this financial crisis are many.

“For example, when we are short-staffed due to sickness we cannot afford to pay for locums or over-time. We are having to make very difficult decisions about what we can and can’t afford, in order to keep your practice viable.”

Dr Amit Seyan poses for photos in Robin Hood medical practice in Sutton in south London in London, Britain 20 March 2024. Facundo Arrizabalaga/MyLondon
Dr Amit Seyan poses for photos in Robin Hood medical practice in Sutton in south London in London, Britain 20 March 2024. Facundo Arrizabalaga/MyLondon

Dr Seyan told the LDRS how he and his staff have had to seek other ways of boosting the income of the surgery to cope with the increasing demand. He was keen to stress that GP surgeries were businesses and that the £104 they get per patient per year they get from the NHS is not enough.

He said: “To stay sustainable as a business we have to increase the work we do to get more income in. That comes through having GP trainees and medical students here, we have also tried to engage in research as well.”

“But I’m still a full-time GP and I still have to find time outside of this GP work to do all this work and stay stable. We have to do a lot a lot of extra work, on weekends, evenings and days off to stay sustainable and to ensure that we can provide the best care we can.”

The pressures have also forced the centre to change in other ways and improve efficiencies across the board. One way they have done this is by eschewing the old appointment allocation system which favoured the more tech-savvy younger generation.

Dr Bennett told the LDRS: “We have moved to total triage, which means that every request for a clinician comes to one of the senior partners and we then allocate the appointments according to clinical need and risk.”

Dr Amit Seyan poses for photos in Robin Hood medical practice in Sutton in south London in London, Britain 20 March 2024. Facundo Arrizabalaga/MyLondon
Dr Amit Seyan poses for photos in Robin Hood medical practice in Sutton in south London in London, Britain 20 March 2024. Facundo Arrizabalaga/MyLondon
(Image: Facundo Arrizabalaga/MyLondon)

“There may be 20 year old who may have rung us at 8 am and got an appointment on the day for hay fever, and then there’s an 80-year-old who can’t get through but they have something serious.“

“The biggest frustration people have is that they can’t get hold of a GP service. It’s that imbalance we’re trying to address.”

Despite these mounting pressures, both GPs said: “We do it because we love the job.” When asked what their main message to the public was, Dr Seyan said: “The main message would be support us. We’re just as frustrated as you are.”

A spokesperson for the London Borough of Sutton said: “Our Local Plan makes provision for new development including those on allocated sites and is supported by an infrastructure study which sets out the requirements for health, education and other infrastructure to support future growth.

“Any new development and major applications in Sutton are also referred to the NHS London Healthy Urban Development Unit for their comments.

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