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A third of GPs suffer from ‘compassion fatigue’

A third of UK doctors are burnt out, with GPs having the lowest levels of compassion compared with other colleagues, a major survey has found.

GPs and emergency doctors – those working on the frontline – are more likely to feel exhausted, stressed and ‘compassion fatigued’, said the study, which noted these doctors are ‘often working under pressure due to the nature and number of patients, time constraints and understaffing’.

A total of 31.5% UK doctors reported a high level of burnout, with 26.2% experiencing secondary traumatic stress – fear and negative feelings from work-related trauma – and 30.7% had low levels of compassion, said the study, published in BMJ Open.

The BMA said the findings are ‘alarming’ and reflect years of underfunding in the NHS meaning doctors are working for longer, with fewer staff.

The survey of 1,651 doctors, including 1,305 women, took place at the end of 2018 and found GPs had the lowest levels of compassion satisfaction at work – the pleasure derived from respondents being able to help others and from doing their work well.

GPs on average scored 33.6 out of 50 for compassion satisfaction – far lower than doctors working in obstetrics and gynaecology, who scored the highest with 38.5. The mean score across all doctors was 37.

Respondents were asked about burnout, secondary traumatic stress and compassion levels, with 8% (120) scoring poorly across all three areas.

Doctors most commonly reported self-distraction as a way of coping. Male respondents were ‘significantly more likely’ to use denial and humour to cope, whereas woman more often used support – emotional or through actions – and positive reframing.

The authors noted doctors self-selected to participate in the survey, meaning it could be affected by selection and response biases, and also highlighted the study design meant it is not to show what is causing the findings.

They questioned whether doctors should receive evidence-based psychological interventions to improve their professional quality of life, or whether the problems should be tackled by ‘acknowledging and improving workplace factors’.

The authors concluded: ‘It could be argued that if the NHS is to continue to remain among the highest-rated healthcare systems globally, ensuring the psychological well-being of its doctors should be seen as a matter of national importance.’

Commenting on the findings, BMA chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said: ‘These findings are alarming and strongly reinforce precisely what the BMA has been saying for a long time.

‘Years of systemic underfunding and serious workforce shortages mean NHS doctors are working longer hours in highly pressured, understaffed environments, and their wellbeing is suffering as a result.’

He noted a BMJ study from 2019 found the vast majority doctors were at substantial risk of burnout, while more than a quarter had previously been diagnosed with a mental health condition.

He added: ‘Above all, the Government must tackle the root causes of this shocking rate of burnout in the medical profession. This requires urgently addressing the significant lack of resources, staff and beds in our NHS, so that doctors have the time and wellbeing to deliver high-quality, safe patient care.’

Last year a Pulse survey revealed more than half of GPs are working above safe limits, on average completing 11-hour days and dealing with a third more patients than they believe they should be.