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Almost half of GPs are ’emotionally exhausted’, study examining ‘burnout’ reveals

A major new study has uncovered high levels of burnout among UK GPs, with researchers warning that ‘a significant group of doctors is in trouble'.

Research published in BMJ Open found that male GPs, those working in group practices and those repeatedly seeing the same patients were most at risk.

The study assessed 564 of 789 eligible GPs working in Essex for burnout using the validated Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) tool. GPs were surveyed for emotional exhaustion; depersonalisation, expressed as negativity and cynicism; and a reduced sense of personal accomplishment.

Almost half the respondents (46%) fitted the criteria for emotional exhaustion, more than four in 10 (42%) were depersonalised, while a third (34%) felt they were not achieving a great deal. A high score for one of the components was linked to high scores for the other two.

The study found male doctors were ‘significantly more likely to be depersonalised' than women counterparts, as were doctors who had been qualified for less than 20 years compared with those who had been qualified for longer.

The authors said the gender differences could be explained by a larger number of women doctors working part time or because women doctors are ‘more patient centred' than their male colleagues, which may boost professional satisfaction.

Perhaps surprisingly, depersonalised doctors were significantly more likely to work in group practices, rather than as single-handers, which the authors said ‘could be the result of group practice creating extra demands on practitioners while raising the possibility of interpersonal tensions and conflicts'.

‘Regardless of cause, these findings are worrying as group practices are increasing in size and number,' they added.

Depersonalised doctors were also significantly more likely to repeatedly see the same patients.

But levels of burnout did not appear to interfere with doctors' professionalism, with a validated survey of 38 doctors, involving almost 1,900 patients and 760 consultations, showing no detrimental impact on their interpersonal skills or patient centeredness.

‘Whatever the reasons [for depersonalisation], a significant group of doctors is in trouble,' the authors concluded.

‘The NHS nationally and locally needs to review its policies, especially when generating increased pressures for this, the largest group of NHS doctors.'

Dr Edward Evershed, a GP in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire who is retiring in three months time, said: ‘I've been burnt out in the last three or four years. It's not been good for my health. I still enjoy seeing patients, but it's the other stuff. I can't wait to retire.'