Stressed Doctors Increasingly Reject Full-time Working

Peter Russell

December 18, 2019

Increasing numbers of doctors plan to work part-time to improve their work-life balance, according to a report.

Today's doctors were more likely to take a year out, reduce their hours, or leave practice earlier than their older peers, according to a survey by the General Medical Council (GMC).

It found that 45% of GPs said they worked less than full-time, and 36% had reduced their hours in the past year.

The ninth The state of medical education and practice in the UK report, said modern career trends threatened the capacity of the health service to plan for patient needs.

It said the findings could undermine the new Conservative Government's pledge to recruit 6000 more doctors to general practice.

Stress and Burnout

For the second year, evidence showed that doctors were under pressure at work, with GPs at particular risk of burnout. The survey revealed that 65% of GPs reported working beyond their rostered hours every day, compared with 32% of doctors overall.

Also, 28% of doctors reported feeling unable to cope with their workload at least once a week.

Rising pressure caused by workforce shortages resulted in doctors becoming stressed and unwell.

Overall, 79% of doctors reported feeling unable to cope with their workload at least occasionally in the past year. GPs in particular were struggling to cope, with 17% saying they felt this way every day – more than twice the proportion of specialists (7%).

Working Hours

As a consequence, 12% of doctors took a leave of absence due to stress in the past year, while 52% said they were likely to reduce their working hours in the next 12 months.

Charlie Massey, GMC chief executive, said: "We need more flexible training and career options if high levels of patient care and safety are to be sustained.

"Doctors say they are no longer prepared to stick with the traditional career paths to meet that demand. We are seeing what looks like a permanent shift in the way newer doctors plan their careers.

"That doctors are making choices for a better work-life balance and career development is a new reality which health services cannot ignore."

An analysis by the GMC showed that doctors who paused before starting specialty training were, on average, at less risk of burnout.

The report also highlighted the growing popularity of GP specialist training, with a 6% increase in doctors joining. However, it cautioned that more doctors did not necessarily lead to an overall increase in GP availability, and that concerns remained that patient demand was outstripping supply.

The report called for action in five areas. These were:

  • Establishing a sustainable workforce by increasing supply

  • Building greater flexibility in medical training and practice

  • Better resourcing and planning of clinical leadership to support competence and wellbeing

  • Ensure that joined-up regulation across health services protects patient safety while being proportionate

  • Enabling new models of care, new medical associate professions, and greater multi-professional working to flourish

Reaction to the Report

Last month, Prof Martin Marshall, chair of the Royal College of GPs, told Medscape News UK that reducing an "undoable workload" was his major priority.

Responding to the report, Prof Marshall, a GP for almost 30 years, said: "The reality is that working 'part-time' in general practice often means working what would usually be considered full-time, or longer. Our own research shows that almost 80% of GPs work longer than their contracted hours at least once or twice a week."

He called for "steps to be taken to make the job more 'doable' by reducing workload for GPs, funding our service appropriately, and delivering on pledges to increase the GP workforce".

Prof Andrew Goddard, president of the Royal College of Physicians, commented: "This report is yet further evidence of the need to provide more flexible working hours for doctors. 

"If we're to resolve the NHS workforce crisis, we must accept the reality that doctors' needs today are very different from 5 or 10 years ago. More and more doctors want to work part-time, and we need to adapt our workforce to suit that change.

"Our main concern is that there simply aren’t enough medical students coming through the pipeline to fill the gaps that part-time working creates."

A survey by The King's Fund earlier this month confirmed that despite an increase in the number of doctors entering GP training, the number of full-time GPs continued to fall.

Suzie Bailey, the Fund's director of leadership and organisational development, said: "The new government's plans for health and care will rely on having adequately staffed services.

"As well as recruiting more staff, it is crucial that services hold on to and develop the staff they already employ."

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