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Doctors at brink of breaking point to ensure patient care, warns regulator

One in five doctors are planning on leaving Britain to work abroad, the GMC warned Photo: Rui Vieira/PA

Doctors are at the “brink of breaking point” to ensure patient care, according to a stark warning from the doctors’ regulator.

Britain is “running out of time” to prevent a significant decline in the number of doctors, putting patient safety at risk, the General Medical Council (GMC) said.

A new report from the regulator says that many doctors are planning to leave the profession in “unprecedented numbers”.

A survey of 2,600 UK doctors found that within the next three years, a fifth are considering going part time.

One in five are planning on leaving Britain to work abroad.

And many are planning early retirement – the poll found that 21% of 45 to 54-year-old doctors and two-thirds of 55 to 64-year-olds, intend to retire early, which the GMC said was particularly “concerning”.

It said the findings come “against a backdrop of uncertainty” over Brexit, with almost one in 10 doctors (9%) working in the UK coming from the European Union.

The GMC report calls for a workforce strategy to solve the problems raised by doctors.

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“The UK is running out of time to prevent a significant decline in workforce numbers, which risks patient safety,” the authors warned.

They added: “The health system now faces a decline in what can be offered and how it is offered by doctors who are prioritising and compromising their work in an effort to maintain standards of care for their patients.

“It shows that doctors are reaching the limit of what can be done.

“Our new evidence reveals the effect of these pressures and the steps doctors are taking to cope.

“We are concerned that some of these strategies are risky or unsustainable.

“The medical profession is at the brink of a breaking point in trying to maintain standards and deliver good patient care.”

Pressures faced by doctors include a rising number of patients, some with multiple complex health conditions, a shortage of experienced staff and system pressures including targets and administrative duties.

These have led to longer hours and a deterioration of work/life balance.

The regulator raised concerns about burnout and poor mental health as a result.

Measures taken to cope with pressures include neglecting learning and adopting strategies which “prioritise immediate patient care and safety” such as making an unnecessary referral or bypassing clinical checklists in order to get through workload, it added.

Meanwhile doctors “acting up” or “acting down” – performing duties beyond or below their expertise – is becoming “normalised”, the report adds.

Professor Sir Terence Stephenson, chairman of the GMC, said: “Doctors are telling us clearly that the strain that the system is under is having a direct effect on them, and on their plans to continue working in that system.

“We’ve heard from doctors who are referring patients on to other parts of the system because they don’t have the time to deal with their issues, understandably moving the pressure on to other parts of the service.

“There are different challenges in each of the four countries of the UK but the NHS is at a critical juncture; without a long-term UK-wide plan to ensure it has a workforce with the right skills in the right places and without the right support, doctors will come under even greater strain.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “Doctors are the backbone of the NHS and there are currently record numbers providing patients with excellent, safe care.

“We are committed to improving doctors’ work-life balance by expanding flexible working schemes and e-rostering and we are ensuring the NHS has the doctors it needs now and in the future through a 25% increase in training places and opening five new medical schools.

“The Government has secured the rights of all EU citizens in the UK and our dedicated EU doctors are among the first to be able to secure their settled status – underlining our commitment to them.”