NHS faces exodus of doctors after Covid pandemic, survey finds

Long hours and the impact of the pandemic are taking their toll on medics, BMA findings show

Thousands of UK doctors are planning to quit the NHS after the Covid pandemic because they are exhausted by their workloads and worried about their mental health, a survey has revealed.

Almost one in three may retire early while a quarter are considering taking a career break and a fifth are weighing up quitting the health service to do something else.

Long hours, high demand for care, the impact of the pandemic and unpleasant working environments are taking their toll on medics, the British Medical Association findings show.

In a survey of 5,521 doctors 1,352 (31.9%) of the 4,258 who replied to a question about whether their career plans had changed over the last 12 months said they were now more likely to retire early than they were last year – more than double the 14% who said the same in June 2020.

Smaller proportions were more likely to take a career break (25%), leave the NHS for an alternative career (21%), work in another country (17%) or become a locum (15%). Some respondents selected more than one option. In addition, half said they were more likely to reduce their hours.

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, the leader of the BMA, said the high numbers of disillusioned doctors could worsen the NHS’s staffing problems and leave patients waiting longer for treatment.

“It’s deeply worrying that more and more doctors are considering leaving the NHS because of the pressures of the pandemic – talented, experienced professionals who the NHS needs more than ever to pull this country out of a once-in-a-generation health crisis,” Nagpaul said.

One acute specialist doctor told the BMA: “My usual finish time is around two hours after I’m rostered to leave. I spend my rest days catching up on the rest of the emails I don’t have time to deal with at work. It’s exhausting.

“I’ve started exploring career opportunities outside of the NHS. I don’t know yet if I’ll leave clinical medicine but I’m seriously considering it. It’s a tough thing to consider. I love the NHS but I know I can’t keep up this pace indefinitely. My own mental and physical health will have to become a priority at some point.”

Asked what factors had influenced their thinking, doctors cited workload (45%), personal wellbeing (43%), pay (29%), working conditions (22%) and the culture in their workplace (22%).

A GP in Yorkshire said: “In my more than 20 years of training and working in the NHS I have been closest to leaving the job that I love in the last few months. Like most, I’ve had days where I wanted to stop. I’ve had colleagues in tears, some scared of what is happening around us and some completely overwhelmed with the avalanche of work that has hit general practice.”

An exodus of doctors would make it even harder for the NHS in England to tackle the backlog of care caused by the widespread suspension of normal services during the pandemic. The waiting list for hospital treatment already stands at 4.7 million – the highest it has ever been.

Nagpaul said: “More than half of doctors are afraid of an unmanageable workload to try to deal with the backlog of millions of patients who are waiting for treatment, and most do not feel that their hospital or department will be able to cope with demand. Three out of five doctors are worried about the impact of the backlog on patient care.”

BMA survey April 2021

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “There are record numbers of doctors, nurses and NHS staff [in England] – over 1.18 million – and there are now more medical students in training than at any point in NHS history.

“We are backing our NHS with an extra £7bn for health and care services this year, bringing our total additional Covid-19 investment to £92bn, including £1bn to support NHS recovery by tackling waiting lists.”

It released figures last week showing there are record numbers of doctors working in the NHS in England. There are more than 123,800 doctors, almost 6,300 more than a year ago, and more than 303,000 nurses, more than 11,200 up on last year, it said.

Bur surveys by medical staff groups show persistent and often widespread shortages of staff in significant areas, which can lead to patients waiting longer than they should for diagnostic tests and treatment including cancer care, heart operations and other surgery.

For example, a survey last week by the Royal College of Radiologists showed that a shortage of radiologists, who analyse scans, is delaying care, including cancer treatment.


Denis Campbell Health policy editor

The GuardianTramp

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