Dr Mary McCarthy: The burnout problem facing the NHS

The British Medical Journal published a survey on burnout last week which showed that more than one third of the UK’s doctors are suffering from stress, mental health issues, depression and anxiety.

It is known that medicine is a stressful job.

Dealing with people who are worried, sick and may be seriously ill, is always going to be a high-pressure job.

Having to give people really bad news, helping them and their family come to terms with a cancer diagnosis or a life-threatening illness, explaining how they might make the best use of the time left to them is never going to be easy.

Working in areas like Accident and Emergency where decisions have to be made, on what is often too little information but will nevertheless affect the survival chances of a patient, is not a routine job.

So, the fact that many are suffering from burnout and stress is seriously alarming.

The worst affected, are general practitioners and A&E doctors, says the article in BMJ Open journal.

This is the biggest study of its kind and revealing the emotional impact that the pressures in the NHS are causing is of concern to doctors and health economists alike.

The NHS has never faced, in all its 71 years of existence, the pressures it faces now. As Dr Chaand Nagpaul, the Chair of BMA Council said: “Years of systemic underfunding and serious workforce shortages mean NHS doctors are working longer hours in highly pressured environments and their wellbeing is suffering as a result.”

The results were gained from questionnaires filled in by doctors of all grades and specialities across all four nations.

'Compassion fatigue'

Further questioning revealed that doctors adopted different coping mechanisms to deal with pressure but “compassion fatigue” was common among GPs, while others blamed themselves for failing to deal with a system that was, in fact, failing them.

Taking care of your workforce is a well-known mantra in industry but the NHS is, and always has been, casual and dismissive about the welfare of those who work in it.

Despite all efforts to make hospital trusts more “doctor-friendly”, there are still doctors who have told their trust of their wedding plans, six months before the date, asking that their rota should include time off on the desired weekend, only to find, when the rota is finally published, that they are down as covering the day they wanted free.

This is not good management.

The entire system is under huge pressure – from GP surgeries to hospitals to community care. We are struggling to cope.

As a GP, our patient numbers are growing and as a result our working day is getting longer and longer.

As I left the surgery last night, after an eleven-hour day, there was another doctor, who began their day at the same time as me, still working; catching up on paperwork, going through blood results, prescriptions and hospital letters.

The workload pressures that doctors now face on a daily basis is unsustainable and it is beginning to show.

The NHS has been neglected and has neglected its staff for far too long. Something needs to change if it is to survive.

* Dr Mary McCarthy is chair of the local medical committee and represents Shropshire, North Staffordshire and South Staffordshire on the General Practitioners Committee of the BMA. She has worked at Belvidere Surgery in Shrewsbury for more than 20 years.

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