More than 50,000 new doctors are needed to meet England's current healthcare challenge, according to new research from the British Medical Association (BMA) that shows workforce numbers are 25 years behind comparable European Union nations.

The new research found that there are 2.8 doctors – across general practice and hospitals - per 1,000 people in England compared to an average of 3.7 in similarly developed EU countries. Other than Poland, this means England has the second lowest doctor-to-person ratio than any other comparable EU nation.

Further reading

The BMA is calling on the government to increase investment into the medical workforce by funding increases in medical school, foundation programme and specialty training places. Investment in retention initiatives is also needed including removing punitive pension taxation rules so older doctors can remain in work flexibly

This shortfall, according to the association, not only impacts patient care and safety, but it also puts immense pressure on existing NHS staff, many of whom are being stretched to the limit and forced to take on extra, often unpaid work to make up staffing gaps.

England unprepared to meet the healthcare challenges of the future

Dr Latifa Patel, acting chair of the BMA representative body and chief officer workforce lead, said: “It’s unforgivable that Government has allowed the NHS workforce crisis to get to this point. Today’s report not only highlights the sheer scale of doctor shortages in England, but also how woefully unprepared the nation is to meet the healthcare challenges of the future. 

“It’s frightening that we’ve reached a point where we’re short of 49,162 full-time equivalent doctors, but even more terrifying to think that this number could hit 83,779 by 2043, as our research suggests. If this crisis is left to deepen, more patients will go without the care they need, their safety will be threatened, and existing staff will be pushed to the limit like never before, driving yet more talented healthcare professionals out of the NHS." 

She added that it was clear that previous attempts to increase staffing levels have failed to bridge the gap. In primary care alone, the overall qualified GP workforce has barely grown since 2015, with the number of GP partners falling by the equivalent of more than 900 full-time doctors in the most recent 12-month period. This is despite Government promises to increase the GP workforce by 6,000 by 2024 - this will likely only translate into about 3,400 FTE GPs.  

The BMA also believes that England has nowhere near enough medical academics, public health doctors, or specialist occupational physicians, who play equally vital roles in the health service.

Dr Andrew Goddard, president of the Royal College of Physicians, said: “There is no doubt that the NHS needs more staff and we need to act now. More than a quarter of our experienced senior consultants are planning to retire in the next three years, and 56% of trainees have told us that they want to work part-time. The population is ageing and patient demand is growing.

“These are challenges that we know are coming and must prepare for by expanding medical school places at the Spending Review so we can train more doctors in the UK. We must also ensure the health and care bill includes a duty to regularly publish independent assessments of whether we are training enough staff to meet future demand.

“The annual cost of training more clinicians may seem high, but it is much less than what we currently spend on agency and bank staff, and nothing compared to the cost of maintaining the status quo. We can’t do nothing and expect patients not to suffer.”