Almost half (48%) of advertised consultant posts across the UK were unfilled last year, according to the Royal College of Physicians’ annual consultant census.

The 2020 physician census conducted by the RCP, the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow has found that the proportion of unfilled medical consultant posts across the UK is at its highest level in almost a decade.

Of the 48% of posts that went unfilled in the UK, 49% were unfilled due to a lack of any applicants at all and 34% due to a lack of suitable candidates.

There were higher rates of unsuccessful appointments in Wales (59%) and Northern Ireland (57%), than in England (46%). In England, the East Midlands region had the highest proportion of unsuccessful appointments (63%), followed by the West Midlands (61%). In London, only 38% of appointments were unsuccessful.

Many higher specialty trainees were unable to complete their training during the pandemic, meaning there will potentially be fewer newly qualified consultants to apply for posts. 

Patients will not get the specialist care they need

Dr Vishal Sharma, BMA consultants committee chair, said: “These figures show just how short our hospitals are of the most experienced and highly-skilled doctors. Without enough consultant doctors in hospitals, patients do not get the specialist care they need and more junior staff are deprived of essential mentoring and teaching.

“The BMA, alongside organisations like the RCP, has long warned of the mounting medical workforce crisis in the NHS, and earlier this year we estimated that England alone has around 50,000 too few doctors.

“Our members are consistently telling us that they’re working under the most pressure they ever have, and with vacancies as high as they are this means remaining doctors having to do even more hours and shifts to try to meet patient need – often to the detriment of their own health and wellbeing, which in turn encourages more doctors to consider leaving the NHS."

No public data on whether England is training enough healthcare workers

The three Royal Colleges of Physicians are among several organisations supporting an amendment tabled by former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt to the Health and Care Bill in England to ensure that every two years the secretary of state publishes independently verified assessments of the workforce numbers needed in future to meet patient demand.

Currently there is no public data on whether England is training enough healthcare workers now to meet expected future demand. This amendment would help provide that data, enabling proper workforce planning that takes account of changes in the NHS workforce and rising demand for health services from an ageing population where multiple conditions are increasingly common.

Dr Andrew Goddard, president of the Royal College of Physicians, said: “We’re being hit by a perfect storm of high demand for services and not enough staff. This can’t go on. The fact that so many posts were unfilled because there were no applicants shows the supply of doctors falls woefully short of demand. We need a clear commitment from government to publish regular workforce projections so that we know how many staff to train to meet future demand.

“We know that medical school places need to be rapidly expanded, and our census results today show precisely why – vacancies among consultant physicians are at their highest level in seven years. It takes 10-14 years to train as a doctor. We need long-term projections on the workforce we will need in future so that our health service is fully equipped to deal with future patient demand.”