'Running on empty': one in four GPs warn extreme tiredness is affecting patient care

A quarter of GPs say they are regularly sleep deprived at work, while the same proportion admit extreme tiredness has impaired their ability to care for patients, a Medical Defence Union (MDU) survey shows.

GP looking tired
GPs report extreme tiredness (Photo: Martin Prescott/Getty Images)

The medical defence organisation's chief executive warned that doctors are ‘running on empty’ after it found 25% of GPs were regularly sleep deprived at work - and close to two-thirds noted feeling tired during sessions at work. Over one fifth said they worked 10 or more hours above their standard working hours each week.

A total of 27% of GPs said tiredness impaired their ability to care for patients, with a further 17% saying it may have been a factor. Where tiredness affected GPs’ ability to treat patients, 13% said a ‘near miss’ had occurred. In 83% of cases no patients were harmed.

Findings that reflect a fatigued workforce come a month after a GMC survey found a third of family doctors were at ‘high risk’ of burnout and more than half were struggling with workload - forcing many to consider reducing their contracted hours.

GP fatigue

The MDU study, which collected data from 178 GPs, found that over half noted their sleeping pattern had worsened during the pandemic, with 39% saying it had ‘significantly’ deteriorated - 42% reported no change.

Around three fifths of GPs said a lack of sleep affected their ability to take care of themselves properly, for example slipping into poor eating habits - and 58% said it led to poor concentration at work. Over half reported it made it hard for them to switch off from work and 43% said it had led to decision making difficulties. Almost a quarter said fatigue contributed to poor mental health.

Two-fifths of GPs said they lacked time to take a single break in a working day; this was significantly higher than for other doctors - with 29% of doctors across all specialties reporting no time for a break. A total of 44% of GPs said they got one break, while 10% said they paused twice during the day - around a fifth said there wasn’t a room or an area at work where they could take a break.

More than a quarter of GPs said they would raise the issue with their manager if they were extremely tired at work and worried about their ability to treat patients safely. Around three fifths said they would take a short break, and half would have a caffeinated drink.

'Running on empty'

Responding to the results of the survey, MDU chief executive Dr Matthew Lee said: ‘Doctors and their healthcare colleagues are running on empty. Our members have come through a period of immense pressure caused by the pandemic and it is affecting all aspects of their life, including sleep patterns.

‘Previous studies have shown that fatigue can increase the risk of medical error and affect doctors’ health and wellbeing. In our survey, side effects doctors reported due to sleep deprivation included poor concentration, decision making difficulties, mood swings and mental health problems.

‘Doctors should recognise when they need to take a break but equally, they need to be working in an adequately resourced environment in order to take one.’ The MDU is calling on the government and NHS employers to do more to ensure there are adequate resources in place to allow fatigued doctors to take regular breaks.

Dr Lee added: ‘Taking regular breaks is vital in the interests of doctors and their patients. Pressures on frontline healthcare workers are likely to get worse for doctors in the coming weeks. At a time of considerable staff absence in the NHS it is more important than ever that those staff who are fit to work are properly supported so they can care for patients safely.’

RCGP president Professor Martin Marshall warned this month that the profession had been 'working to its limits' during the pandemic as he called on the government to come good on its promise of hiring 6,000 additional GPs by 2024.

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