A total of 81% of GPs reported being unable to offer a sufficient level of care to patients at some point this year, while 43% said they experienced this every week, according to the GMC's 2020 State of medical education and practice report.
The report found that GPs remain the medical specialty at highest risk of burnout in 2020 - with 28% reporting a moderate to high risk - and warned burnout risk is linked to doctors' fears over patient safety being compromised.
The GMC report warns that doctors 'face a surge in workloads this winter - not just from a resurgence of the pandemic, but also from seasonal flu and the backlog of elective work' - and warns that this must be closely watched over the coming months. For GPs this workload pressure will be compounded by the rollout of a COVID-19 vaccination programme - potentially from as early as 7 December.
GPs were significantly more likely than other specialities to report problems with the level of care they could provide - with 65% of all doctors saying they found it difficult to deliver sufficient levels of patient care during the pandemic.
More than a third of GPs reported seeing situations where patient safety was compromised in 2020 - compared with 26% across all doctors - with the report suggesting that the 'significant shift in ways of working in primary care' may have been a factor.
Challenges around a lack of services for onward referral of patients, or limited capacity for diagnostic testing played a key role in GPs feeling care was compromised, while almost half of doctors identified workload as a contributory factor.
Describing challenges they faced, one GP responding to polling by the GMC said: ‘[There has been] very restricted access to investigation or secondary care for many patients.’
Hospital work transfer
Another said: ‘It’s hard having to manage patient conditions and patient expectations when the hospital isn’t seeing patients. We are having to manage conditions which really should be managed by secondary care.'
Four out of five responding to GMC polling said that they were working remotely more often - reflecting guidance to reduce face-to-face consultations during the pandemic. More than half said the pandemic had been a positive driver for implementing change.
Although GPs remain at higher risk of burnout than other specialties, the proportion at moderate or high risk has dropped sharply from 45% in 2019 to 28% this year. The report also found that 38% of GPs were satisfied or very satisfied at work - broadly in line with the figure for doctors overall - and substantially up from 20% last year.
The GMC suggested that this had been ‘driven by a sense of fulfilment and reward’ heightened by the pandemic - but warned that maintaining lower burnout risk and a greater sense of satisfaction would be ‘challenging’ over winter.
GMC chief executive Charlie Massey said: ‘GPs are at the frontline of healthcare and the public rely on the services they provide. Despite their best efforts many felt unable to deliver the care that they wanted to for their patients.
‘It is encouraging to see that remote ways of working are helping GPs to balance workload and fewer doctors are feeling at risk of burnout. We need to retain the excellent clinicians we have and to do that it means supportive, inclusive and fair working environments.’
He continued: ‘It also means working hard to embed the compassionate leadership that doctors need to flourish in our healthcare system. We will take these findings and act on them as we continue to support the development of supportive, inclusive, fair and well led healthcare environments.’