A QUARTER of GP practices in Scotland are missing at least one doctor as the latest staffing figures show a decline in GPs working full-time.

Nearly two thirds of family doctors (63 per cent) are now working part-time, compared to half in 2013.

This is partly driven by an increased share of women working in general practice - now at 60 per cent of the profession - who tend to take on the bulk of responsibility for childcare.

However, it is also a reflection of a growing number of GPs cutting back their hours, for example by taking early retirement and returning to practice part-time or taking on side jobs in teaching or research.

Read more: Third of GP trainee placements unfilled 

Although the overall headcount for GPs in Scotland has remained fairly stable, the shift to more part-time working has resulted in a drop in the 'whole-time equivalent' (WTE) count for GPs - a measure of full-time cover.

As a result, the number of WTE GPs is down by 160 since 2013, a fall of four per cent.

The proportion of surgeries reporting at least one vacant GP post has also surged from nine per cent in 2013 to 24 per cent in 2017.

Dr Carey Lunan, chair of the Royal College of GPs (RCGP) Scotland, said: “The findings from this survey are very concerning.

In the interests of patient care and a sustainable NHS, we must do more to tackle the GP shortage and ensure that we increase the number of WTE GPs across the country as quickly as possible.

"The drop in the numbers of WTE GPs is being felt in communities across Scotland.

"Practices are struggling to fill long-standing GP vacancies, which not only causes instability within practices but also has a knock-on effect on patient care, with many patients facing lengthy delays in seeing a GP."

Family doctors are facing increasing demands as the population ages and people live longer with multiple chronic conditions.

At the same time, the gulf in potential earnings between GPs and hospital consultants has been widening and fewer than ever medical graduates are opting to pursue a career in general practice.

The Scottish Government has pledged to boost GP numbers in Scotland by 800 over the coming decade.

Read more: GP warns majority will pocket funding boost as salary hike

Dr Alan McDevitt, chair of the BMA’s Scottish GP Committee, said: “Every unfilled vacancy puts more and more strain on remaining GPs who must struggle to cover the gaps in their practice while also coping with rapidly increasing demands on GP services."

He said he hoped the new Scottish GP contract - which will offer interest-free loans for the upkeep of premises and see GPs share more of their workload with support staff, such as pharmacists - would attract more graduates into general practice.

However, rural GPs have also argued that the way cash will be shared out under the new contract's Scottish Workload Allocation Formula (SWAF) will actually exacerbate GP vacancies in rural areas - where they are highest and hardest to fill - because the vast majority of rural practices will get no extra cash, while many urban practices get substantial windfalls.

It comes as long-term vacancies for hospital consultants, midwives and nurses continue to climb, despite overall NHS workforce numbers reaching record levels.

Herald View: Our GP practices need a lifeline before it is too late

The highest number of consultant vacancies were among clinical radiologists, the medics responsible for checking X-rays, MRI and CT scans for signs of cancer.

Three quarters of these had been empty for more than six months.

Lawrence Cowan, Scotland Manager at Breast Cancer Now, said: “While we’re seeing efforts to improve the situation, these worrying figures show the real strain on radiology services in Scotland.

"If not addressed, these shortages could begin to have an impact on screening, early diagnosis and, ultimately, patient outcomes in Scotland."

Read more: Record number of patients waiting too long for key cancer tests

Increasing vacancy rates contrast with the record number of doctors, dentists, nurses, midwives, psychologists and other allied health professionals in post.

By December 31 2017, NHS Scotland was employing more than 44,000 qualified nurses and midwives, an increase of 7.6 per cent since September 2006.

However, the number of midwifery vacancies has tripled during the past five years, including a six-fold increase in midwifery posts empty for more than three months.

This can reflect both recruitment freezes to save money and a shortage of applicants.

Mary Ross-Davie, Royal College of Midwives Director for Scotland, said: "Any vacancy means we are missing a midwife which means that their colleagues are facing increasing workloads."

Health Secretary Shona Robison said the Scottish Government would deliver an extra 2,600 nursing and midwifery training places by 2021.

She added: “With demand on our NHS rising we’re committed to both record investment in our health service and ensuring that new safe staffing legislation is introduced to help deliver the right staff, with the right skills, in the right place, long into the future.”