GP surgeries in Blackburn with Darwen are being paid for thousands of ‘ghost patients’ who appear on their registers, despite them having died or moved away.

The number of patients registered with doctors exceeds the borough’s population by about 20,000, with the mismatch thought to be costing the NHS more than £1 million per year.

Russ McLean, chairman of the Pennine Lancashire Patient Voices Group, said it was an ‘alarming’ situation which may have been caused by a ‘transient population’ of students or refugees failing to de-register with surgeries when they move.

He added: “Our doctors are already well paid, so I hate to think they are benefitting from having these patients on their lists. We simply cannot afford to continue paying for this out of public funds.

“Surgeries should do all they can to make sure their lists are up to date, but patients also have to take responsibility and make sure they inform their surgery when they move.”

There are currently 169,543 patients registered with GPs in Blackburn with Darwen, while the borough’s latest population figure, for 2012, was 147,489. Practices are paid about £65 per year for each patient on their list, meaning the borough’s doctors could be receiving an extra £1.3 million.

The East Lancashire area has 371,918 patients registered with GPs, against a population total of about 382,000, which suggests there could be about 10,000 patients not registered with a practice.

GPs are paid with public funds, but are private contractors rather than employees of the NHS. An average family doctor earns about £100,000 per year.

NHS England, which commissions GP services, said in a statement: “In the majority of cases, GP practices work hard to keep their registered patient lists as accurate as they can and our area teams are working closely with them to achieve this.

“It is really important that patients keep their GPs informed if they are changing practices or leaving the area so that their registration can be amended.”