Exclusive GPs are facing the worst burnout crisis for over a decade and must have the support to demand national leaders address spiralling workloads, former RCGP chair Professor Dame Clare Gerada has said.
Over 20% more GPs have presented to mental health service NHS Practitioner Health during the pandemic compared with the year before, said Professor Gerada who is the service’s medical director.
Most of the GPs presenting have ‘catastrophic anxiety and work-related stress’, she added.
LMC leaders have also told Pulse that supporting the ‘utterly exhausted’ GP workforce is the biggest issue they are dealing with at the moment.
Speaking to Pulse, Professor Gerada said: ‘We’re doing Covid, we’re running vaccination sites, we’re running the sites [for the vaccine hesitant], we’re doing catch up, we’ve just had QOF coming through [and] we’ve got an enormous explosion of patients coming.
‘[Our professional leaders] need to go to [NHS England’s chief executive] Simon Stevens and [primary care director] Nikki Kanani and say “no more – unless you give us help, we cannot continue”.’
It comes as a major survey by Pulse has revealed that GPs are working 11-hour days and dealing with an average of 37 patients in that time – far more than the 28 patients they believe is the safe daily limit in the pandemic.
Professor Gerada told Pulse she is having ‘sleepless nights’ worrying about the profession after hearing about overwhelmed GPs ‘on every forum and every space’.
She said: ‘I’ve been working in this area for 14 years and I’ve never seen GPs so exhausted. I got sent a text yesterday that said [the person] went to see their GP and the GP burst into tears because of the workload. This is an emergency now.’
GP leaders must say that ‘enough is enough’ and call for doctors from other areas to come into practices to help alleviate the workload rather than GPs ‘propping up hospital care’, she added.
She added: ‘Just like we helped during Covid – GPs went into hospitals [and] worked in ITU – we need those cavalry now in practice, whether those are the retired doctors, the newly-qualified, the volunteers… all the people that went in.’
NHS Practitioner Health has seen a surge in GPs reaching out for support, with numbers ‘much higher’ than before the pandemic, Professor Gerada said.
The service had 1,995 GPs present between April 2020 and March 2021 – up 22% on the same period the year before when there were 1,640.
But Professor Gerada is worried that many more are not coming forward because they are ‘too tired’ and overwhelmed – and warned there could be an influx of GPs coming forward with ‘severe depression’ after the pandemic, as well as complaints from patients.
She said: ‘We are seeing lots of cases of GPs but they’re so burnt out and so overworked at the moment that they haven’t even got the time to seek help.’
LMC leaders also said they are concerned about the amount of work facing GPs.
BMA GP Committee deputy chair Dr Mark Sanford-Wood said: ‘There are a lot of people pretty close to the edge [and] we’re seeing a lot of practices really struggling with the demands.’
The LMC has ‘real worries’ about people leaving the workforce ‘who were probably fairly close to burnout before the emergency arrived’, he added.
He told Pulse: ‘As we come out of the emergency, a lot of people who stayed at their posts because it was the right thing to do are now evaluating whether they can continue to work in a system that is utterly swamped – where the help that we get from secondary care is inevitably reduced, there’s a massive backlog and we’re the ones on the frontline.
‘We’re the ones constantly taking the anger and the dismay from patients who can’t get the services they need. It’s a pretty tough place to be at the moment.’
NHS England this week announced it has ‘strengthened’ its mental health support offer for primary care staff.
In an email bulletin sent to practices last week, it said it has established 40 local staff mental health and wellbeing hubs to offer ‘rapid’ clinical assessments and access to other services.
The hubs will also be able to refer primary care staff with ‘more complex needs’ to NHS Practitioner Health – however, GPs can also self-refer to the dedicated service.
An NHS spokesperson told Pulse: ‘GP teams, like all NHS staff, have faced significant Covid-19 challenges. We have provided support for practices and staff which includes coaching and mentoring, additional financial support for clinical directors and £270m to expand general practice capacity during the pandemic.’
Last year, Professor Gerada said that GP wellbeing must be a ‘priority’ going forward, with GPs making up almost 60% of new registrations to NHS Practitioner Health.
At the time, she said that NHS England must ‘put in place systems’ that stop GPs becoming ‘overwhelmed’ and ‘getting the blame’ for delays in the system, such as when facing referrals bounced back by hospitals.