The pandemic has heaped such pressure on exhausted doctors that a conversation about wellbeing ‘is needed now more than ever’, the acting Chair of the General Medical Council (GMC) has warned in a speech.

Professor Dame Carrie MacEwen told an audience at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow (RCPSG) that Covid had exacerbated long-standing issues.

She said lengthening NHS waiting lists meant ‘crippling’ uncertainty for patients and were ‘deeply distressing’ for doctors. As a result, many doctors were looking to reduce their hours or even leave the profession.

Dame Carrie said:

‘Not being able to give patients what they need has a cumulative effect, one that undermines patient trust and wears doctors down. We know that doctors experiencing severe workload pressures are more likely to consider stepping back from practice.’

She told the conference that while issues facing UK health services were made worse by the pandemic, they were not created by it, citing research just published by the GMC.

‘This is not new – research shows that doctors who left UK practice between 2004 and 2019 gave dissatisfaction and burnout as two of the main reasons for doing so. And this was before the start of the pandemic.

‘As this research makes plain, wellbeing issues are driving doctors out of the service.’

The research Dame Carrie referred to – Completing the picture – views of doctors who have stopped practising in the UK, why they left and what might encourage them to return – was based on a survey of 13,000 doctors who quit UK practise in the five years up to 2019.

They were asked to select factors which played a part in their decision to leave. Many cited personal reasons, such as retirement (27%) or returning to their home country (32%). But workplace issues were given by many including dissatisfaction (36%) and burnout (27%). Bullying was included as a reason by 5.5% of respondents.

“Simply put, poor working environments lead to poor outcomes for patients. That’s the main reason this work is a strategic imperative for us.”

Professor Dame Carrie MacEwen, Acting Chair of the General Medical Council said:

‘This matters. Not just because bullying, burnout and bad culture are a moral stain on our health services. But because they have a material impact on the number of doctors available to staff them and to look after our patients.’

She stressed that solutions were needed now to address what was an unsustainable situation, and that the GMC, as well as others, had roles to play.

‘Simply put, poor working environments lead to poor outcomes for patients. That’s the main reason this work is a strategic imperative for us.’

Read the full text of Dame Carrie’s speech to the RCPSG.

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