UK GPs more stressed and dissatisfied than international counterparts

GPs in the UK are among the most stressed and least satisfied with their jobs compared with family doctors in 10 other high income countries, according to a new report.

(Photo: sturti/Getty Images)
(Photo: sturti/Getty Images)

Some 60% of 1,001 UK GPs responding to a survey by the Commonwealth Fund said that they found their job ‘very stressful’ or ‘extremely stressful’. Meanwhile, only 39% of UK GPs said they felt 'extremely' or 'very' satisfied with practising medicine, compared with an average of 51% for the other 10 countries polled.

Only primary care doctors in Sweden were more stressed than those in the UK, while France was the only country to have a lower overall GP satisfaction rate.

The Health Foundation, which reported on the UK findings of the study, said that the survey showed that 'little progress has been made in reducing GP stress' since the poll was last carried out four years earlier, when 59% of UK respondents said their job was very or extremely stressful.

The survey found differences in stress levels among GPs in the UK. Some 62% of GPs in England said they were extremely or very stressed, compared with 52% in Wales, 48% in Scotland and 43% in Northern Ireland.

GP workload

The poll, which was carried out between January and July 2019, received responses from 13,200 primary care physicians in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK and the United States. The results were weighted to be representative of GPs in each country.

According to the survey, GPs in UK were the least satisfied with the amount of time they spent with patients – only 29% of UK GPs said they were satisfied with the amount of time they spent with patient. The average length of a GP appointment in the UK was 11 minutes, compared with 19 minutes in the other countries.

UK GPs also reported the lowest satisfaction with their pay compared with their international counterparts and were the least satisfied with their workload – just 6% of UK GPs said they were ‘extremely’ or ‘very' satisfied with workload.

The study found that UK GPs' dissatisfaction with their role was affecting their career plans. Some 49% of UK GPs said that they planned to reduce their weekly clinical hours in the next three years, 11% said they intended to retire within the next three years and 15% planned to change career. However, 10%  said they intended to increase their weekly clinical hours in the next three years.

The survey also looked at other aspects of primary care and found that general practice in the UK was an international leader in the use of electronic medical records. UK GPs were also more likely to receive and review data as part of efforts to improve patient care that their counterparts in other countries.

The Health Foundation said that UK governments and policymakers needed to do more to understand what would keep GPs in practice and 'implement solutions rapidly'. 'Measures that have been tried so far are not turning the tide on GPs’ intentions to reduce their hours or leave practice altogether,' its report added.

Longer appointments

Policymakers should also enable GPs to offer longer appointments, the foundation said, pointing out that those GPs with longer patient appointments reported greater job satisfaction.

GP leaders said that hurried appointments were leaving GPs stressed and dissatisfied, but they warned that without an increase in the GP workforce, longer appointments would mean patients waiting longer to see their doctor.

Dr Gary Howsam, vice chair of the RCGP, said the survey results 'came as no surprise'.

'Unless significant steps are taken to make working in general practice more sustainable for existing GPs, they will burn out and leave the profession earlier than planned,' he added. 'Standard 10-minute consultations are rarely appropriate to deliver the complex, high-quality care our patients deserve. No GP wants to hurry an appointment, and the result of having to doing so is stressful and dissatisfying for the GP and can leave patients feeling as though they have been rushed.

'We need more time with our patients. But offering longer consultations means offering fewer and patients are already waiting too long for an appointment. We need the government to deliver their pledges of more funding for general practice and 6,000 more GPs as a matter of urgency.'

BMA GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey said: 'It’s been clear for some time now that the standard 10-minute appointment is not long enough to give many patients the care they need.

'GPs want to be able to deliver holistic care, but we need extra time coupled with appropriate resources to do this. Workload pressures are growing across general practice and staffing levels are plummeting, so simply increasing appointment times would only mean delaying other patients for longer. Its vital that we are given access to the investment and resources we need to ensure all patients are able to get the care they need and deserve.'

GP Dr Rebecca Fisher, one of the Health Foundation report’s authors, said: ‘Over the long term we need concerted action to stabilise general practice. Too many GPs are highly stressed and overburdened - to the point of wanting to leave the profession altogether.

'Policymakers need to be sure not to build castles on quicksand. Primary care networks are intended to reform general practice, but solutions that rely on the existing GP workforce doing more are likely to misfire. Bringing in additional workforce, from pharmacists to physios, is welcome but will not quickly solve the immediate pressures facing GPs.’

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