New data indicates that the NHS has the most stressed GPs in the Western world.
A combination of relentless workloads, coupled with bureaucracy and logistical problems, results in the shortest amount of time spent with patients.
The research was conducted by the Commonwealth Fund; widely considered to be one of the most influential think tanks in the world in any industry.
Data from the study indicated that the stress levels among British GPs are so high that almost 30% plan to quit in the next five years.
It is also thought that new pension regulations will have a significant influence over this number.
The knock-on effect of this issue is that patients will find it increasingly difficult to acquire an appropriate appointment.
And the growing pressures on family doctors in the NHS are such that over 20% have become ill in the last 12 months.
Just under six in 10 GPs (59%) find their work stressful, with 39% of these saying it is very stressful and 20% extremely stressful.
Researchers surveyed 11,547 GPs in 11 countries, including France, Germany and the United States.
Commenting on the issue, Dr Jennifer Dixon, chief executive of the UK-based Health Foundation thinktank, which assisted with the study, suggested that the level of stress in the NHS should be considered as serious as the many other problems facing the health service.
“These worrying findings reveal the scale of the challenge facing general practice. The survey suggests that UK GPs’ unhappiness may be driven by their spending less time with patients than they would like. The relentless appointment treadmill experienced by UK GPs is in stark contrast to that reported by their peers overseas.”
Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, had pledged in 2015 it to recruit 5,000 additional GPs, yet refused to comment on the findings of this study.
At the time Hunt had stated that “general practice is the jewel in the crown of the NHS and central to the future of the health service.”
Prof Nigel Mathers, the honorary secretary of the Royal College of GPs, was firm in his assertion that excessive stress levels can ultimately lead to poor performance and potentially life-threatening mistakes being made.
“Such high levels of stress amongst GPs in the UK compared to other countries is bad news for the NHS and for our patients, as growing numbers of family doctors are becoming dissatisfied with their working circumstances and consider leaving the profession.”
It seems that in the existing NHS culture that ministers and the Department of Health should prioritise efforts to relieve the growing pressures on doctors.
Additionally, any attempts to increase the workforce working in general practice would obviously be valuable.
A newly released survey of NHS consultants indicates that the whole service is facing a dramatic exodus of senior hospital doctors.
Figures derived from the survey indicated that as many as 80 per cent of senior doctors in the National Health Service may consider retiring early due to work-related stress.
The prominent medical figures even indicated that conditions in the NHS where so pressurised that numerous physical effects where manifesting in their everyday lives.
These included sleepless nights, marital breakups and illness such as ulcers, anxiety and even strokes.
It is clear from the survey that a vast number of senior NHS consultants are suffering from burnout, and this extreme tiredness is beginning to impact negatively on their life as a whole.
A natural knock-on effect of this particular phenomenon is that frontline services are being directly challenged.
The escalating pressure evident in the NHS has resulted in numerous negative consequences, including logjams of demand, an excessive long-hours culture, and increasing pressure to meet targets.
Research which led to these conclusions was carried out by the Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association (HCSA).
The HCSA interviewed 817 experienced hospital doctors, and found that 81 per cent of them stated that they had at least considered retiring earlier than planned as a direct result of work pressures.
Burnout, low morale and increasing stress were all incredibly common side-effects of the situation in the NHS, and the survey painted an extremely worrying picture of the overarching culture in the health service.
While the evidence provided by the survey is worrying enough in itself, the data will also be seen in the context of the recent government plan to create a so-called seven-day culture in the NHS.
Already there has been scepticism in some quarters that the scheme is even remotely practical, and this latest survey will only exacerbate concerns about Prime Minister David Cameron’s scheme.
Speaking on behalf of the HCSA, Eddie Saville, the HCSA’s general secretary, indicated that the data acquired in the survey was extremely worrying.
“The number of consultants that are considering retiring early is staggeringly high and a big worry for the NHS. The NHS could be left without enough consultants and the remaining consultants would then be spread too thinly,” stated Saville.
In addition, Saville also suggested that staffing and recruitment issues would naturally be negatively affected by the problems indicated in the survey.
“If experienced consultants are bringing forward their retirement age because they are burned out, the loss of that amount of skill and expertise will have an impact on recruitment and retention of existing staff, and inescapably an impact on patient care,” added Saville.
With the research also indicating that 80 per cent of senior doctors work longer than their contracted hours on a regular basis, and half of this number reportedly do so on a permanent basis, the issues facing the health service are brought sharply into focus.
NHS England has today announced an initiative intended to impact positively on the health and wellbeing of staff in the service.
The Chief Executive of NHS England, , will outline the plans aimed at the organisation’s 1.3 million employees speaking at the NHS Innovation Expo conference.
Measures introduced as part of these plans will include serving healthier food, promoting physical activity, reducing stress, and providing health checks covering mental health and musculoskeletal problems.
These latter two issues are purportedly the largest causes of illness absences in the NHS. Overall absences in the health service are estimated to cost the taxpayer £2.4 billion per year. To put this figure into perspective, this amounts to approximately 2.5 per cent of the total NHS budget.
Three principles will be at the heart of this new health initiative. Firstly, there will be a major drive intended to promote improved NHS staff health. This will be conducted by a group of leading NHS hospital, mental health, ambulance, community and clinical commissioning group employers, and partnered with NHS Employers and Public Health England.
Secondly, a new occupational health service will be particularly targeted at GPs; a tranche of the NHS that particularly suffers from high levels of stress and burnout owing to long hours. This aspect of the programme will be partnered with the Royal College of GPs and BMA General Practitioners Committee.
And, thirdly, there will be a specific focus on catering, with the aim of delivering healthier food options within the NHS. In order to achieve this, NHS England will work closely with Public Health England.
Speaking on the new initiative, Stevens stated that “NHS staff have some of the most critical but demanding jobs in the country. When it comes to supporting the health of our own workforce, frankly the NHS needs to put its own house in order.
“At a time when arguably the biggest operational challenge facing hospitals is converting overspends on temporary agency staff into attractive flexible permanent posts, creating healthy and supportive workplaces is no longer a nice to have, it’s a must-do.
“And at a time when the pressures on GPs have never been greater, we need to extend the local practitioner health programmes that have been shown to help GPs stay healthy and get back to work when sick.
“Equally, it’s time for PFI contractors and catering firms to ‘smell the coffee’ – ditch junk food from hospitals and serve up affordable and healthy options instead. Staff, patients and visitors alike will all benefit.”
However, the approach to addressing the issue has been criticised in some quarters.
By implementing this new approach to health within the NHS, the health service is explicitly acknowledging that working within the clinical professions is becoming increasingly stressful. When this is combined with the relentless pursuit of cost saving measures, attempting to squeeze ever more juice from already stretched resources, then this inevitably results in more sickness absences.
Some have suggested that this an unsustainable situation that must be addressed directly, rather than merely attempting to alleviate problems with measures that singularly fail to tackle the root cause of the issue head-on.
Additionally, the overall budget for the scheme is £5 million, which when spread across the 200 trusts in the NHS ultimately represents a rather paltry figure, considering that the average trust typically employs around 5,000 people. One can calculate that this initiative will represent little more than a few pounds investment per member of staff.
Nonetheless, Christina McAnea, UNISON Head of Health and chair of the NHS Social Partnership Forum, was still willing to publicly acknowledged what she considered to be a positive development. McAnea commented that “the health and well-being of NHS staff at work has a direct impact on patients and this initiative rightly starts recognising that. Addressing physical and mental health issues is important and a step in the right direction as it will help tackle some of the major causes of stress at work.”