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UK GPs have the highest stress levels, finds survey of 10 countries’ doctors

GPs in the UK have some of the highest stress levels and lowest job satisfaction among family doctors, a 10-country survey has found.

British GPs suffer from high levels of burnout, have a worse work/life balance and spend less time with patients during appointments than their peers in many other places.

Heavy workloads, seemingly endless paperwork and feelings of emotional distress are prompting many GPs to stop seeing patients regularly or even retire altogether, the research found.

Seven in 10 (71%) NHS family doctors find their job “extremely” or “very stressful”, the joint-highest number alongside GPs in Germany among the countries analysed.

The Health Foundation, which undertook the survey, said its “grim” findings showed that the “unsustainable” pressures on GPs and number of them quitting pose a threat to the NHS’s future.

It examined survey data that the US-based Commonwealth Fund global health think tank collected last year from 9,526 primary care doctors in 10 countries, including the US, France, Australia and New Zealand. That included 1,010 GPs in the UK.

This chart shows the survey found 71% of UK GPs found their job ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ stressful

It found that while family doctors in all 10 nations are under greater strain than before Covid-19 struck in early 2020, GPs in Britain reported the biggest rises in pressure, stress and negative feelings.

“It is alarming, but not at all surprising, that GPs in the UK are among the most stressed and overstretched of the nations examined”, said Prof Kamila Hawthorne, the chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners.

The fall in the number of full-time equivalent GPs in recent years lies behind many of the problems the survey identified, she said. “It is very worrying that more qualified GPs are leaving the profession than entering it. As the foundation of the NHS, we are struggling,” she added.

The survey also found that

  • British GPs are among the least satisfied with practising medicine, work/life balance, workload and time spent with patients.

  • While NHS family doctors were among the most satisfied about practising medicine when asked in 2012, now just a quarter (24%) are “extremely” or “very satisfied”.

  • UK GPs have seen bigger rises in their workload since the pandemic than almost all other countries and stress is up by 11%.

  • They are among those most likely to plan to stop meeting patients regularly in the next one to three years.

In addition, half of British GPs think the quality of care they can provide to patients has got worse since Covid. However, many feel well able to care for patients with complex needs.

This chart shows that the survey found only 24% of UK GPs, the lowest number in the survey, were ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ satisfied at work

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) did not comment directly on the analysis.

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A spokesperson said only that: “The number of doctors in general practice [in England] rose by over 400 in 2022 and is more than 2,000 higher than 2019 with record numbers in training.

“We are aware of the pressures facing GPs and we have recruited over 25,000 additional members of staff including pharmacists, physiotherapists, and paramedics, who are providing care directly to patients or supporting doctors and nurses to do so.”

Dr Kieran Sharrock, the acting chair of the British Medical Association’s GPs committee for England, said: “These findings are unfortunately unsurprising. Workload in general practice has become totally unsustainable and GPs are burning themselves out trying to keep up with rising patient demand.

“Many talented and experienced doctors are becoming disenchanted and feel as though they have no choice but to reduce their hours or leave the profession altogether, ultimately depriving communities of the care they need. We’ve now lost the equivalent of 2,078 fully qualified full-time GPs since September 2015.”

Ruth Rankine, director of the NHS Confederation’s primary care network, warned that: “GPs in the UK face higher workloads and higher levels of emotional distress than in other countries, and this will likely get worse unless the staffing crisis is addressed.”

She urged the government to publish its long-awaited NHS workforce plan for England and to be “honest with patients about what primary care and our dwindling pool of GPs can deliver”. The DHSC said it would emerge “soon”.

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