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GP surgeries in north central London could have hundreds of thousands of ‘ghost patients’

GP surgeries in north central London could be receiving payments for hundreds of thousands of patients who may not exist, new figures suggest.

By Andrew Dowdeswell, Data Reporter

A stethoscope on top of a medical file
Photo: RADAR

GP surgeries in north central London could be receiving payments for hundreds of thousands of patients who may not exist, new figures suggest.

So-called ‘ghost patients’ occur when more people are registered with GP practices in the area than the estimated population.

The Royal College of GPs said practices “try hard to keep their patient lists” up-to-date and are not deliberately profiting by keeping more patients on their lists than are registered there.

The latest NHS Digital figures show 1.8 million patients were registered at GP surgeries in the NHS North Central London Integrated Care Board area as of November 1.

However, the latest Office for National Statistics population figures from the census suggest 1.4 million people lived in the same area in 2021, meaning approximately 390,000 ghost patients are registered with GP practices.

Some of the disparity could be down to changes in the local population, such as people moving away from the area.

There were 62.9 million patients registered at a GP practice in England, but the latest estimates put the country’s population at 57.1 million people in 2022, meaning there could be around 5.8 million ghost patients.

The Taxpayers’ Alliance said the public is unfairly subsidising GP practices for patients who may not even exist. It called for lists to be amended accordingly if the unknown users cannot be found.

GP surgeries received an average of £164.64 per registered patient annually, meaning practices in north central London could have received around £64.2 million for patients who do not exist in the last year.

Nationally, taxpayers may be paying £962 million per year for patients who might not exist.

Dr Victoria Tzortziou-Brown, vice-chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: “GP practices try hard to keep their patient lists as up-to-date as possible, but this relies on timely and accurate information about the movement of patients so that individuals are not inappropriately removed from a GP list.

“So-called ‘ghost patients’ are nothing sinister, and are not a case of surgeries deliberately profiting by keeping patients on their lists when they shouldn’t be there – they are a records management issue.”

Dr Tzortziou-Brown said list inflation, which incorrectly increases the count of patients, and under-coverage – such as babies being recorded against their parents’ records and so are not included in the National Patient Register until formally registered – are among the reasons why GP practices have ghost patients.

An NHS spokesperson said: “NHS England works with GP surgeries to review and update their patient lists, and it is vital that practices do this on a regular basis so they are as accurate as possible.”

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