Each year, it is estimated that 5.8m people in England have to go to accident and emergency (A&E) with non-emergency problems because there is no GP available to see them.
Research published in the British Journal of General Practice showed that for the financial year starting in 2012 and ending in 2013, approximately 26.5 per cent of unplanned A&E attendances occurred because the person could not secure a GP appointment.
The study also showed that the number of people attending A&E increased by 2.2m attendances, or 11 per cent, from the financial year 2008-2009.
Thomas Cowling, lead researcher of the study, said: "There has been a lot of talk in recent years about rising numbers of A&E attendances and the impact that this might be having on A&E departments. It has been suggested that a lack of access to GPs could be a factor, but there hasn't been much evidence to back this up. The aim of this analysis was to inform the debate; until now, the numerical scale of the problem hadn't been estimated."
The team at Imperial College London arrived at the estimate by looking at the total number of GP consultations throughout the year and gathering patients' own accounts of experiences at local GP practices. Based on this they calculated the ratio of attempts to obtain a GP appointment that resulted in A&E attendance to attempts that resulted in a GP consultation.
Based on the results, the team is now calling for more research to be done to understand the cause of this trend, including an evaluation of a recent pilot scheme launched by the Department of Health to combat the problem. Under the scheme, 1,147 General Practices in England are offering appointments outside of current opening hours, with the hope that this will prevent some unnecessary A&E attendances.
"The benefits of increasing access to GPs could, and should, be assessed by evaluations of current pilots that aim to improve GP access," added Cowling.