Doctors Urged to Adopt Flexible Working To Cope With COVID-19

Peter Russell

March 13, 2020

Doctors were given notice they could be expected to work outside their usual area of expertise in the increasingly likely scenario of widespread community transmission of COVID-19.

The warning came in a joint letter from the UK's chief medical officers, and officials from the General Medical Council (GMC) and NHS England. It said that in the event of a significant epidemic, primary and secondary care "will be put under extreme pressure".

This would "inevitably be exacerbated by staff shortages due to sickness or caring responsibilities", and would represent a "challenge" for the profession.

"A significant epidemic will require healthcare professionals to be flexible in what they do," the letter said. "It may entail working in unfamiliar circumstances or surroundings, or working in clinical areas outside of their usual practice for the benefit of patients and the population as a whole."

'Overwhelming Demand' for NHS Services

The statement made clear that while doctors would be expected to adhere to GMC principles and guidance, the unique context in which they might be asked to work would be taken into consideration if complaints arose.

"Due consideration should and will be given to healthcare professionals and other staff who are using their skills under difficult circumstances due to lack of personnel and overwhelming demand in a major epidemic," the letter said.

GPs, hospitals, trusts, and health boards would need to bear in mind that "clinicians may need to depart, possibly significantly, from established procedures in order to care for patients in the highly challenging but time-bound circumstances of the peak of an epidemic".

The chief medical officers acknowledged that doctors might feel stressed by having to work outside their usual disciplines, but they said: "We are confident doctors will respond rapidly and professionally and want to assure colleagues that we recognise this will require temporary changes to practice, and that regulators and others will take this into account."

NHS Resources

Responding to the letter, Dr Samantha Batt-Rawden, co-founder of the Doctors' Association UK, said: "Doctors recognise that COVID-19 is quickly becoming an 'all hands on deck' situation. There is no doubt that doctors will feel a moral duty to pitch in wherever required.

"However, we must ask how the NHS has been allowed to get into this position. The moving of doctors to different areas or specialties in which they may not be trained is not new, and has been a tactic employed the last two winters due to severe short staffing.

"Although this outbreak is unprecedented we are now seeing the effects of years of under-resourcing.

"Sadly this gamble has left the NHS very exposed, without enough highly specialised critical care doctors and nurses even to cope with current demand."

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