Sharp rise in GPs seeking mental health support during past year

The number of GPs seeking help from NHS Practitioner Health, the specialist service for doctors and dentists with mental health problems and addiction, has increased by 20% during the pandemic.

The number of GPs contacting NHS Practitioner Health has increased in the past year (Photo: Getty Images)
The number of GPs contacting NHS Practitioner Health has increased in the past year (Photo: Getty Images)

NHS Practitioner Health's deputy director Dr Helen Garr told GPonline's podcast, Talking General Practice, that the main issue doctors were presenting with was anxiety and symptoms of burnout and exhaustion. 'People are anxious, they're exhausted, they're overwhelmed,' Dr Garr said.

Any NHS doctor or dentists is able to self refer to NHS Practitioner Health and Dr Garr said the service had seen a huge increase in numbers contacting the service over the past year.

'GPs have always made up a large proportion of the doctors and the healthcare professionals we see in our service, but the numbers of GPs have also increased by over 20% during the pandemic,' she said.

The average age of doctors using the service has dropped over the course of the pandemic – from around 40 to 38, Dr Garr said. She added that the fall in the average age of people using the service was particularly noticeable in female doctors.

Increase in workload

'The biggest number of doctors we see in our service is the 32 to 38 age group. We think the reason for that is this group, particularly females, are almost the squeezed middle. So they're at the senior points of their career, they're often supporting junior members of the team. But outside of work, they're also supporting children and often elderly parents,' Dr Garr said.

General practice has experienced an explosion in workload this year. Latest statistics from NHS Digital show that practices delivered 4.8m more appointments in March 2021 compared with the previous month - a 20% rise.

A poll by the BMA earlier this month suggested that more than a third of GPs are planning to retire early as a result of the pandemic. Nearly seven in 10 GPs who responded to that survey said they were 'not at all', or 'not very' confident that their practice would be able to cope with demand as normal services resume as pandemic pressures ease in the UK.

Looking after staff

Dr Garr told Talking General Practice that it was vital that the NHS started to look after and value staff if it was to prevent a mass exodus.

'There are systems issues, which absolutely need to be looked at. But I also think we could learn a lot from the response that happened in the early pandemic, and how we look after the basics. How can we help our staff feel valued, cared for, and looked after?

'In the early pandemic, we pulled together, people had each other's backs. And that made a huge difference to how engaged people felt. These are the things that are going to stop people leaving, along with this huge, bigger questions about looking at what needs to change in the system.'

  • Listen to the interview with Dr Garr on Talking General Practice, where she talks about how she became involved in doctors' wellbeing and provides practical advice on what GPs and other members of the primary care team can do if they are struggling to cope, here.

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