More than half (59%) of doctors are struggling with a heavy workload, working beyond rostered hours at least once a week, according to a new report by the General Medical Council (GMC).

The ‘State of Medical Education and Practice in the UK 2021’ report draws on various data and research collated by the GMC, including the results of the 2021 national training surveys (NTS) and the 2021 Barometer survey, as well as commissioned in-depth interviews and focus groups with doctors.

GPs are reporting much greater pressure than any other group

The report highlights that the proportion of doctors at a high risk of burnout has increased from 10% in 2020 to 17% in 2021, with a strong relationship between burnout, workload and levels of support.

GPs are once again reporting much greater pressure than any other group, with nearly a third (32%) at high risk of burnout. Despite this, GPs were less likely than other medical professionals to take a leave of absence, as they felt unable to do so.

On average, GPs described a ‘high intensity’ workload on 76% of their days, a significantly higher proportion than specialists (55% of days), trainees (52% of days), and SAS and LE doctors (57% of days).

The proportion of GPs and specialists struggling with their workload doubled in 2021, with more than half of GPs (54%) and almost three out of 10 specialists (28%) now finding it difficult to cope. 

Two-thirds of doctors (64%) said they have struggled at some point during the last year to provide a patient with the ‘sufficient level of care’, while a quarter (25%) experience this on a weekly basis.

This is thought to have contributed to a fall in job satisfaction from 72% in 2020 to 53% in 2021. For this reason, around half of doctors are now planning on reducing their contracted hours, up from 35% last year.

In response to the report’s findings, GMC chief executive Charlie Massey said: “There is a strong relationship between burnout, workload and levels of support, and GPs are bearing the brunt of those pressures. They are the doctors who most often reported difficulties providing patients with sufficient levels of care, and they are most likely to be at a high risk of burnout.

“There is a real danger that exhaustion and dissatisfaction among GPs will mean more leave the workforce, placing yet more pressure on those who remain. There needs to be a fresh mindset in the way healthcare teams work together, and GPs must be a crucial part of that thinking.”

Looking after and retaining staff must be an “absolute priority”

The report’s findings come as the government piles more pressure on the NHS to accelerate the booster programme, with the aim of offering all over-18s the jab by the end of the year.

Dr Latifa Patel, BMA interim representative body chair and workforce lead, said that with pressures set to get worse over the coming months, the report highlights why “looking after and retaining staff must be an absolute priority now and in the months and years to come.”

She added: “Unsustainable workloads do not just impact doctors – but they directly affect the care they can offer patients. More than a quarter of doctors told the GMC that they had witnessed a situation where the safety of care had been compromised in the last year, with workload pressures and delays being the most common underlying reasons given.

“This chimes with the BMA’s own surveys, the most recent of which found that eight in 10 doctors who responded were more concerned than a year ago that patients would come to harm because of delays in admitting them to hospital, while a similar proportion said they were not confident about their department’s ability to manage demand this winter.

Dr Patel is now urging the government to “demonstrate their commitment to safe staffing and … safe patient care” by laying out a comprehensive NHS workforce place to meet the needs of the population.
She says the BMA will continue to push for an amendment to the Health and Care Bill that holds ministers to account and ensures they regularly assess how many doctors are needed now and in the future.