Post-pandemic NHS backlogs threaten the health and wellbeing of thousands of doctors, as well as their patients, the General Medical Council (GMC) has warned in a new report.
The regulator’s annual national training survey, completed by more than 67,000 UK doctors – all either trainees or trainers – reveals a continuing worsening trend in answers to questions about workload and burnout.
While most trainees rated the quality of their training highly, and nine in ten trainers said they enjoyed their roles, the risk of burnout is now at its worst since it was first tracked in 2018. The GMC is calling for clinicians’ wellbeing and training to be at the heart of workforce planning as health services continue their post-pandemic recovery.
Last year’s report showed how the COVID-19 pandemic had reversed previous improvements, prompting a warning by the regulator that it should be a blip rather than part of a ‘new normal’. But data in this year’s report shows the situation has deteriorated further, as backlogs in UK health services take a toll on doctors.
Two-thirds of trainee doctors said they ‘always’ or ‘often’ felt worn out at the end of a working day, while nearly half (44%) were regularly ‘exhausted in the morning at the thought of another day at work’.
Analysis of the results by the GMC shows that 63% of trainees, and 52% of doctors who work as trainers, are at moderate or high risk of burnout, the highest levels since the questions were introduced to the survey.
“These results show the extent to which our health services are struggling to recover from the impact of the pandemic, and that NHS backlogs are not just a risk to patients, but also to the health and wellbeing of doctors,” commented Charlie Massey, Chief Executive of the GMC. "The danger now is that increased workloads, and the stress and burnout risk that go with them, may become permanent. We’re sharing our data with employers and postgraduate training leads so they can target areas of concern and promote good practice. Support for trainees and trainers must be at the heart of future workforce policy decisions, or we risk creating a vicious circle that, ultimately, will adversely affect patients.”
Trainees in all medical specialties showed an increased risk of burnout compared to last year. The highest rate was in Emergency Medicine, with 32% of doctors in training at high risk of burnout, up from 21% in 2021. Despite the pressures, around three-quarters of trainees (74%) were satisfied with the quality of their workplace training, describing the teaching as either ‘good’ or ‘very good’.
Trainers were also positive, with 90% saying they enjoyed the role, although less than half (45%) said they were always able to use the time allocated for that purpose.
Charlie Massey added: “The wake of disruption left by the pandemic is inevitable and will be felt for years to come. Despite those pressures, the quality of training across the UK remains high, which is thanks to the hard work and commitment of tens of thousands of trainers and trainees.”
Commenting on the publication of the survey, Miss Fiona Myint, Vice President of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, said: “These results show that the pandemic continues to impact doctors and that the risk of burnout has increased, which is very worrying. We must use these survey results to drive improvements for trainees and trainers.
“Trainees are our present and future NHS workforce. We need to do everything we can to listen to their concerns and to support them now and in their future careers. Throughout two years of disruption caused by the pandemic, they have worked tirelessly. Their skills will be essential as we tackle the backlog of operations created by COVID.
“We have been calling for surgical trainees to catch up on missed training opportunities caused by the pandemic, as soon as possible, with bespoke programmes that include enhanced theatre time. Every opportunity must be taken to ensure that every planned NHS operation includes a surgical trainee, including those that take place in the independent sector. We also need to see a fully funded workforce plan as soon as possible, to fill vacancies in the NHS and improve staff wellbeing."
The national training survey 2022 results report is available online.