Exclusive: Almost half of GPs are jeopardising their mental health and are at a high risk of burning out, a major Pulse survey of 1,800 GPs has found.
The survey shows 46% of GPs are classified as being at high risk of developing burnout, with partners and those working in deprived areas particularly badly hit.
A fifth of GPs said that they do not think they are positively influencing other people’s lives or accomplishing much in their role – which GP leaders have said was ‘hugely concerning’ for the future of the profession - and prompted Pulse to launch a Battling Burnout Campaign.
The figures come after a huge hike in workload was brought in as part of the GP contract for 2013/14 and as health secretary Jeremy Hunt announced he was planning changes to the GP contract to make the profession responsible for 24/7 patient care.
Most of the GPs surveyed are classified as being at risk of burnout in at least one area, measured using the validated Maslach Burnout Inventory tool. The tool was adapted for GPs and drawn up with input from RCGP chair Professor Clare Gerada and the College of Medicine.
The survey of 1,784 GPs was conducted on the Pulse website and at the Pulse Live conference in May. It contained questions assessing three key areas that signal a high risk of burning out – emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation and a low level of personal accomplishment.
A survey of 500 British GPs published in BMJ Open last year found 46% were emotionally exhausted, 42% were depersonalised and 34% felt they were not achieving a great deal. This compared with much higher rates in the Pulse survey of 74%, 43% and 20%, respectively.
GPC deputy chair Dr Richard Vautrey called Pulse’s findings ‘hugely concerning’. He said: ‘It’s alarming that so many GPs are burnt out.
‘The current level of work is unsustainable. I hope enough alarm bells are ringing in the Department of Health, in NHS England, Health Education England and all the devolved nations for them to say “we need to tackle this”.’
Dr Michelle Drage, chief executive of Londonwide LMCs, said that burnout was leading to a ‘deterioration’ of general practice, and that there was little political will to solve the problem.
She said: ‘That would be terrible if patients looked back and said “We used to have a GP”. We’re getting closer and closer to that point. Rising levels of burnout are causing a deterioration of general practice as a profession.’
Dr Rob Barnett, chair of Liverpool LMC said that the increase in QOF work and bureaucracy around medicine was a factor in GPs becoming less emotionally engaged with their patients, which could lead to mistakes.
He said: ‘GPs having to do things which they think are clinically pointless doesn’t help. I’m aware of practices saying one appointment, one problem, like a conveyor belt. It’s no wonder you get into a certain mode. I can’t work like that but if you’re running behind, you might have to do it that way.’
He added this could have consequences for patients: ‘It’s then that you might start missing things.’
Dr Mike Bewick, deputy director of primary care at NHS England, acknowledged the problem of burnout and said he was ‘committed’ to working with GPs to reduce workload pressures.
He said: ‘GPs play a central role in co-ordinating care for patients and we know that strengthening this role further is central to CCGs’ ambitions for more integrated patient care.
‘We are committed to working with the profession to help address the growing pressures on practice workload and help free up time to focus on delivering more integrated services for patients.’
However, on the ground, LMC leaders report that NHS England is cutting funding to occupational health services which are seeing rising numbers of GPs presenting with symptoms of burnout.
I felt like I was drowning. Every day I was getting up, going to work and hating it. I was there from 8am to 8pm and I was struggling. It was never ending. Knowing it would be the same every day and that I’d have to get up the next day to come back made it difficult to cope.
Please note: This article was updated with new figures that showed 46% were at a high risk of burnout, rather than 43% as previously stated.