Ageing workforce poses 'real challenge' for general practice, warns BMA report

Doctors are retiring from the NHS 'earlier than ever before', according to a BMA report that highlights the ageing workforce as a huge threat to general practice and calls for urgent measures to retain older GPs.

Nearly half of GP workforce over 45 (photo: iStock.com/sturti)
Nearly half of GP workforce over 45 (photo: iStock.com/sturti)

Nearly one in five (18%) GPs in the UK are aged 55 or over, with a further 29% aged between 45 and 54 years old, a BMA report on the ageing workforce warns.

Although the report says this age profile is 'no surprise', it makes clear that doctors are retiring from the NHS 'earlier than ever before' - a trend that is 'particularly acute' in specialties including general practice.

GPonline reported earlier this year that numbers of GPs taking early retirement had tripled in a decade, with factors such as tighter tax limits, heavy workload and the introduction of revalidation taking a heavy toll.

GP retirement

Findings published on Thursday by University of Warwick academics revealed that 42% of GPs planned to quit the profession within five years. These findings echoed results from the latest University of Manchester national GP worklife survey - which found last year that 39% of GPs planned to quit in the next five years, and that among GPs aged over 50 a staggering 62% planned to quit within five years.

The latest BMA report says that to reverse the trend of early retirement, the NHS needs to understand 'why doctors decide to retire and what motivates them to stay in the workforce', and recognise the benefits that older doctors' skills, expertise and knowledge can bring.

Polling by the BMA found that health and wellbeing, workload and burnout were the most important considerations for doctors considering whether to retire early. For GPs 'job satisfaction may be a particular area for policymakers to focus on to avoid early retirement', the report says - pointing to evidence that morale had slumped over the past decade.

The report found that factors most likely to encourage GPs to work beyond retirement age were ability to work flexibly (65%), job satisfaction (57%), having time to practise the most enjoyable aspects of medicine (50%) and support with workload (44%).

Reduced hours

One case study presented in the report relates to a GP who was able to keep working for longer than planned by reducing their working hours. The GP said: 'In my later years my stamina was not the same. I began to find it harder to draw on the necessary reserves of emotional energy to give top class engagement to all my patients.

'On the other hand, I had also reached a level of skill and insight where I could try different consultation styles and put more truly into practice shared decision making. Without the opportunity to reduce my hours in the practice I would undoubtedly have left the practice before 59.'

BMA deputy chair Dr David Wrigley said: 'In today’s NHS, some 47% of staff are now aged 45 or over, while six out of 10 consultants and specialty and associate speciality doctors are over the age of 45 and almost one in two GPs are over the age of 45.

'The medical workforce is ageing, and many experienced older doctors are finding that working in today’s NHS is too taxing on their work-life balance, health and wellbeing, particularly as they age, causing some to seek early retirement.

'The NHS needs to understand why doctors retire and what will motivate them to stay working. Our report highlights the support required for those doctors who wish to work past retirement age including allowing flexible working arrangements, having time to practise the most enjoyable aspects of medicine and support with workload to prevent burnout.

'Older doctors can contribute their skills in other ways and the NHS must recognise and support this while the government must review pensions arrangements for both working doctors, and for doctors in retirement so that they are not disadvantaged financially by deciding to return to the workplace.

'Employers must do all they can to make it easier for older doctors to work in the NHS, so their skills and experience can be retained and passed on.'

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