Exclusive: Three quarters of GPs take no breaks during a four-hour clinical session

Three in four GPs take no breaks in a four-hour clinical session and a quarter take no breaks during a full working day, findings from a GPonline poll suggest.

Asked how many breaks they took on average, 77% of GPs who responded to the survey said they took none during a four-hour clinical session, while 28% said they worked full days without a break.

The findings come just over a month after the RCGP launched a campaign urging GP practices to ensure their staff took breaks to help them cope with the 'relentless' pressure of general practice.

More than two thirds (69%) of 369 respondents to the poll said their practice did not have any measures in place to ensure GPs took breaks. Only 20% of GPs said they took more than one break during a full working day.

GP workload

Many GPs who did take breaks said that they continued to work throughout. One respondent said: 'I manage to grab a short break (15-30 minutes) in the middle of my day to have lunch but this is often taken in front of a computer whilst reading emails or hospital letters so hardly constitutes a break.'

Another said: 'We eat lunch together at a lunchtime meeting that involves discussing policies, cases and signing our prescriptions - no natural break.'

One repondent wrote: 'Sometimes I get to eat lunch. This might be for a maximum of 10 minutes. Sometimes I get to go to the toilet in between patients. I start the day with a pint of water on my desk but I can't guarantee that I will get any further drinks in the day.'

Another respondent said the huge workload facing GPs on a daily basis made it hard to switch off and take a break. 'It is very difficult to take a break if you know you have a mountain of work outstanding, and all issues require dealing with in a timely fashion,' she said.

Wessex LMCs chairman Dr Nigel Watson told GPonline the findings reflected what had become the norm in general practice, and warned that the intensity of work GPs now face in a full day needed to be addressed.

Complex patients

'You cannot work for 12 hours-plus continuously. In my practice we try to get together for coffee for 20 minutes each morning. But we need to find a way to address workload and complexity to make GPs' working day feel more in control.'

GPonline reported last week that most GPs would back limiting the number of consultations clinicians carry out per day at 30 or below. Dr Watson said the idea was good in principle, but warned that he could not see GPs refusing to see patients who needed access to primary care simply because they had reached the cap.

But the RCGP campaign warned that soaring workload had left GPs at breaking point, and that they were more likely to make mistakes. Launching the campaign, RCGP chairwoman Dr Maureen Baker said last month: 'Rising patient demand, excessive bureaucracy, fewer resources, and a chronic shortage of GPs are resulting in worn-out doctors, some of whom are so fatigued that they can no longer guarantee to provide safe care to patients.'

The RCGP has not recommended how often GPs should take breaks, but a paper published last year by the college said one 'potential solution for fatigue would be for staff to take regular, mandatory breaks'.

But Dr Watson echoed comments by some respondents to the poll who warned against fixed requirements for breaks.

He said: 'I don't think it is a good idea for practices to be required to ensure breaks. Practices need flexibility, and if I have an enforced break I will just go home later, or get round it.'

The lack of breaks GPs take should be seen as a 'barometer' measuring pressure on the service, he said, and it would not be helpful to enforce them.

Photo: iStock

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