Third of GPs at ‘high risk’ of burnout as GMC reveals impact of unsustainable workload

More than half of GPs are struggling with workload - with a third at ‘high risk’ of burnout and many planning to cut their working hours, according to a GMC report that reveals the devastating impact of unsustainable pressure on general practice.

GMC warning over pressure on GPs (Photo: GMC)

The regulator’s State of Medical Education and Practice report for 2021 found that 54% of family doctors struggled with workload this year - double last year's percentage - and surpassing the level seen in 2019 (50%).

A total of 32% of GPs were at high risk of burnout, compared with 18% of other specialists and 11% of doctors in training. Despite this, GPs were less likely than their counterparts in other medical specialties to take a leave of absence - with the report suggesting they felt less able to.

The GMC report also found that almost half of the 895 GPs surveyed were likely to reduce their contracted hours in the next year, up from 35% last year.

GP workforce

GMC chief executive Charlie Massey warned of a 'real danger that exhaustion and dissatisfaction among GPs will mean more leave the workforce, placing yet more pressure on those who remain'.

RCGP chair Professor Martin Marshall warned that the COVID-19 pandemic had exacerbated existing 'intense workload and workforce pressures' in general practice - and called for urgent action to protect the health and wellbeing of GPs.

The stark warning over pressure on general practice comes as the government asks the profession to 'pull out all the stops' to ramp up the COVID-19 booster campaign in response to surging cases of Omicron - and follows official data that show the GP workforce remains in decline.

The GMC report found that on average, GPs said workload on 76% of their days was ‘high intensity’ - 19 percentage points higher than the figure for any other medical specialty.

Patient care

Over a fifth of GPs said they found it difficult to provide a patient with sufficient care at least once a day, while 23% said this happened at least once a week - a factor that contributed to a fall in job satisfaction from 72% in 2020 to 53% in 2021, the report said.

Responding to the report GMC chief executive Charlie Massey said: ‘There is a strong relationship between burnout, workload and levels of support, and GPs are bearing the brunt of those pressures. They are the doctors who most often reported difficulties providing patients with sufficient levels of care, and they are most likely to be at a high risk of burnout.

‘There is a real danger that exhaustion and dissatisfaction among GPs will mean more leave the workforce, placing yet more pressure on those who remain. There needs to be a fresh mindset in the way healthcare teams work together, and GPs must be a crucial part of that thinking.’

GPshighlighted the growing volume of administrative tasks or procedures as a concern, with three quarters saying it had a ‘negative or mostly negative impact’ on their work. GPonline reported earlier this year that clinical administrative workload in general practice was up by a third compared with pre-pandemic levels.

Pandemic effect

The report concluded: ‘Doctors’ workload and risk of burnout have risen over the last year, returning to similar levels reported before the onset of the pandemic. Doctors are concerned about growing waiting lists and many are reporting that the increased pressure on workloads is affecting patient care.

‘Experiences are not uniform across the medical workforce. GPs again report being under the greatest pressure, and the gap between disabled and non-disabled doctors has continued to grow.’

Professor Marshall said: 'General practice was under intense workload and workforce pressures before the pandemic, but the crisis has only exacerbated these, as the figures in this report make clear.

'GPs and our teams have been at the forefront of delivering safe and appropriate care throughout the pandemic, ensuring patients receive the care and services they have needed whilst leading two complex mass vaccination programmes in line with COVID-19 restrictions. The relentless and escalating workload is taking its toll on the health and wellbeing of GPs and this must be addressed as a matter of urgency.'

Relentless pressure

BMA workforce lead Dr Latifa Patel said: 'This timely report, published as frontline doctors are working under some of the most intense pressures they’ve ever faced – and which are set to get even worse in the coming days, weeks and months – underlines the devastating impact that the pandemic has had on the dedicated medical workforce, and reinforces why looking after and retaining staff must be an absolute priority now and in the months and years to come.

'We know that all doctors have gone above and beyond during the pandemic, but findings such as today’s show that this has come at the expense of their own wellbeing.'

MDDUS head of medical Dr Naeem Nazem said: ‘2021 has been a tougher, far more relentless year for doctors, especially GPs. Burnout and doctors opting to leave the profession to protect their own mental health is sadly nothing new. But it is clear the pandemic has yet again exacerbated the situation.’

Medical director at Medical Protection Dr Rob Hendry, said: 'Exhaustion and disillusionment...puts the safety of both doctors and patients at risk, and GPs now face the additional challenge of creating more capacity to deliver the vaccine booster programme, at a time of huge demand, backlogs and abuse.'

MDU head of advisory services Dr Caroline Fryar, said: ‘Today’s report by the GMC makes for sobering reading and shows that the medical profession is understandably feeling exhausted and burned out due to relentless pressure.

‘The GMC concludes that medical professionals are at risk of moral injury due to being unable to provide optimum levels of patient care. We say this places the regulator, government and employers under a moral duty to ensure doctors are better supported and have access to the resources they need to properly care for patients.’

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