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Burnout neglect is a silent scandal

Managers should hang their heads in shame. After promising they would act to protect vulnerable GPs, they have done the exact opposite.

NHS England told Pulse a year ago that it would commission a ‘high-quality’ occupational health service for all GPs, after we campaigned for months to highlight the issue of GP burnout. This service has yet to materialise.

Instead, gold-standard support services have had their funding cut, while those that haven’t are struggling to meet growing demand.

It is a silent scandal that occupational health support for struggling GPs is being reduced instead of expanded. And we reveal today that the problem is getting worse. Half of GPs are at risk of burnout according to our survey of more than 2,200 GPs. This is an increase of four percentage points on two years ago. A quarter feel a severe lack of personal accomplishment and three-quarters have high levels of emotional exhaustion.

These figures starkly illustrate the results of NHS England’s neglect. And behind the numbers are many sad stories of GPs reaching the edge and then realising how little support there is.

As well as the effect on the individual, collateral damage is caused to GP partners, family members, colleagues and patients. All the time, I hear stories of GPs struggling to cope because a partner is off work due to stress. It is causing valuable, experienced GPs to reduce their hours or leave the profession altogether. It weakens practices and I have even heard stories of exhausted GPs handing their keys back to the NHS and ditching their contract to protect their health.

Patient safety is potentially at risk if GPs are working with high levels of exhaustion or depersonalisation. How can GPs take on more complex care in the community if they are unable to cope with their workload now?

My predecessor at Pulse likened providing occupational health support for GPs to the duty of care the country owes to its war veterans, but I would go further. It speaks to the heart of the values the NHS holds dear. If it cannot look after its own, then what kind of message does that send out?

Even the GMC has recognised the intense pressure on GPs. In last month’s Pulse, its new chair called for a confidential advisory service to be rolled out for GPs. So where is it?

I will be writing to NHS England managers to remind them of their commitment to provide this, and make them aware that the situation continues to get worse.

But of course, it is also important to address the causes of burnout as well as the symptoms. Health secretary Jeremy Hunt recently said he recognised that many GPs feel like they are on a ‘hamster wheel’. But are his words empathetic – or just empty?

The ‘new deal’ he has promised for GPs must tackle the pressure on the profession meaningfully and head on. Because this is the only way the Government is going to recruit the 5,000 new GPs it has promised and ensure general practice survives. The NHS only has a future if general practice becomes a more attractive, less onerous place to work.

Everything else is secondary.

Nigel Praities is editor of Pulse