Tackling Shortage of Doctors Must Be an 'Urgent Priority'

Peter Russell

July 12, 2021

NHS staff in England face "immense" pressure because of a shortage of doctors, according to the British Medical Association (BMA).

The Association said that almost 50,000 more doctors were needed if the health service was to keep up with demand for its services.

The BMA analysis came as the Royal College of Emergency Medicine (RCEM) released details of a workforce survey that found more than half of respondents in emergency departments experienced burnout during the second wave of the pandemic.

Staffing Shortfall

According to the BMA's analysis, Medical Staffing in England: a defining moment for doctors and patients , the number of doctors for each person in England was 25 years behind comparable European Union nations.

Its research suggested that across both general practice and hospitals, there were 2.8 doctors per 1000 people in England, compared with an average of 3.7 in comparable EU countries.

It would take a quarter of a century before England could achieve the same ratio of doctors in practice and in training, the BMA's analysis found.

There were also insufficient medical academics, public health doctors, and specialist occupational physicians, it said.

The BMA called for more Government funding and more transparency of workforce assessments.

Dr Andrew Goddard, president of the Royal College of Physicians, commented: "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 3 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."

Workforce Burnout

The call came as the RCEM survey, carried out between May 14 and June 14 this year, found that:

  • 73% of respondents reported that workforce pressures in their emergency department affected patient safety before the onset of COVID-19

  • 59% experienced burnout during the second wave of the pandemic

  • 50% were considering reducing their working hours over the next 2 years

The College called for staff retention to be made a priority throughout the UK.

Dr Katherine Henderson president of the RCEM, said: "Governments must acknowledge the data and reports that show emergency departments across all four-nations are struggling to cope, struggling with performance, and struggling to deliver quick, effective and high-quality care, and take the necessary action to address it."

Commenting on the findings by the BMA, Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said: "This report rightly highlights worrying workforce shortages and attrition rates for doctors, and the gap between staff supply and service demand which we are seeing across all areas of the workforce.

"All health staff are under unsustainable demands because of this. For too long, they have been asked to provide discretionary additional efforts in the delivery of patient care.

"This is why we have been calling for a fully-costed and funded multi-year workforce plan, to recruit and retain more staff."

Training 'a Priority': Government

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said: "This Government is committed to supporting the NHS and its staff in the fight against COVID-19 and beyond.

"There are record numbers of doctors, nurses and NHS staff – over 1.19 million – and there are now more medical students in training than at any point in NHS history. The latest figures show NHS Trust doctor leaver rates for 2019/20 were lower than at any point in the previous decade.

"We are committed to increasing the number of training places available for GPs to 4000 a year, and we have the highest number of doctors accepting places to train as a GP. Applications to study nursing and midwifery have also risen by 21% this year, and we will support our NHS workforce to grow with 50,000 more nurses by the end of this parliament."

The DHSC said that last year it had committed a minimum of £1.5 billion in cash terms for general practice until 2023/24 for additional staff. That was in addition to the £4.5 billion real terms annual increase announced for primary and community care in the NHS Long Term Plan.

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