This site is intended for health professionals only

​Nine out of ten doctors say pressure and poor staffing drive medical errors

Nine out of ten doctors have warned that staffing issues and workload pressures are the main causes behind medical errors, a major survey has found.

The BMA poll of nearly 8,000 doctors found that 95% are fearful of making a medical error, and that the level of fear has increased over the past five years.

The survey report, published today, also revealed that:

  • GPs are more likely to say that they provide significantly more hours of work per week than they are contracted for (75% vs 43% hospital doctors). GP partners are particularly likely to do so (84%).
  • GPs were more likely to highlight excessive workload pressures (91% versus 72% of hospital doctors), when asked about why the NHS struggles to retain staff, whereas hospital doctors were more likely to state a negative workplace culture (53% vs 40% of GPs).
  • A high proportion of doctors (73%) say there are organisational barriers between primary and secondary care, which result in increased bureaucracy and administrative costs. Many doctors (60%) say that these barriers result in compromised quality and safety of patient care.
  • Over half of doctors (55%) worry they will be unfairly blamed for errors that are due to system failings and pressures; as a result, half of doctors practise defensively (49%). 
  • Safe staff levels (57%), IT systems (53%), and fewer consultations (47%) were identified as key areas in which doctors would like to see improvement

The BMA went on to outline a number of recommendations, including the introduction of safe staffing levels and working limits in general practice, alongside better IT systems.

It added that doctors’ pay has declined in real terms by around 20% over the past decade, and that ‘if morale, recruitment and retention are not to become even bigger issues for the NHS’, then this must be addressed.

The survey report said: ‘The results are stark. They reveal that many doctors feel they are working in a dangerous and toxic environment, with a culture of blame and fear jeopardising patient safety and discouraging learning and reflection.’

This comes as part of the BMA’s ‘Caring, Supportive and Collaborative’ project, which hopes to ensure that the voices of doctors from all disciplines and backgrounds are heard by the NHS, regulators and the Government.

BMA chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul, who is leading on the project, said: ‘It is vital that the Government and policy makers heed the views of all doctors who provide care at the coalface; they are in the best place to know the problems the NHS faces on a daily, hourly basis. They know the scale of impoverishment in the NHS is staggering.’

Doctors with burnout are twice as likely to make mistakes, such as incorrect diagnoses or wrong prescriptions, according to research published earlier this month.