Wales’ GPs are quitting because they’re burnt out – where are the solutions?
Dr Owain Rhys Hughes, surgeon and founder and CEO of Cinapsis
This week, a new report from MPs delivered the chilling news that NHS services across the nations of the UK are facing their worst staffing crisis in history. Although the statistics are grim – vacancies topping 62,000 and rising – they didn’t come as a surprise to anyone working in the service.
Since long before the pandemic accelerated the trend, clinicians with years of dedicated service under their belts had been leaving in droves. Pushed away by unsustainable workloads or suffocated by outdated systems, staff were – and continue to be – pouring out of the NHS like blood from an open wound.
In primary care, the workforce crisis is particularly acute. In a spectacular failure to meet their manifesto commitment to recruit 6,000 more GPs, the government simply looked on as the number of full-time equivalent GPs fell by more than 700 over three years to March 2022.
Today, primary care in Wales, as well as in England and Scotland, is on its knees, and with patient waiting times for care breaking all previous records, there are still no signs of a coherent plan to reverse the GP exodus. This is dangerous, and remaining GPs and their patients are already suffering the results.
The NHS can sorely afford to lose the expertise and experience of even one more GP. These doctors are the pillars holding up the entire primary care system; they are known and trusted by their communities; they hold huge amounts of locally-specific knowledge; they are the pivot point for a complex network of health and social care service providers. Remote digital consultation providers are a wholly inadequate replacement for the community-based GP.
Diagnosing the problem
We know that Welsh GPs are quitting because they feel undervalued, they’re frustrated with internal systems, and because the overwhelming pressures are burning them out.
According to the most recent Staff Survey, half of NHS staff report feeling unwell as a result of work-related stress in the last 12 months, and over a third now specifically report feeling burnt out. In addition to these hard-to-swallow statistics, I’ve heard numerous reports of GPs canceling holidays to cover for unwell colleagues, of doctors working nights and weekends to catch up on never-ending admin tasks, and A&E departments overwhelmed by patients with nowhere else to go.
We cannot allow this to become the status quo. Properly funded and resourced change needs to happen now if the staff exodus is to be reversed and Welsh primary care is to be saved.
Investing in a cure
We can try to recruit more GPs, but this is expensive, takes years, and pulls clinicians away from other NHS roles where they are also sorely needed. We can entice GPs out of retirement, but this is a quick-fix that, realistically, might only boost numbers by a few hundred.
The best course of action at this moment is to focus efforts on supporting GPs at the early and middle stages of their careers. Retaining these clinicians must involve taking workload off their plates, proving to them that things can get better, making their roles feel sustainable and rewarding, and demonstrating that they are valued.
Of course GP pay is certainly something that needs to be looked at extremely carefully. The cost of living is hitting everyone, but it’s unacceptable that a GP working overtime every day must also contend with worries over how to pay their bills.
But money is not the only way to prove to clinicians that they are valued. And pay rises are not the only way to make their roles more sustainable. There’s a huge opportunity for the implementation of tech solutions and system innovations designed to streamline the ways that the whole primary care system operates.
By handing primary care teams the right digital tools to break down communication barriers and collaborate with their colleagues, thousands of hours of clinical time can be rescued. By fixing broken referral systems and introducing user-friendly triage tools, patients can be sent to the right source of treatment in minutes rather than months. When done right and regulated properly, tech is the most promising cure that can be prescribed to primary care.
A focus on rolling out the best digital solutions, many of which have been built by clinicians themselves, is an essential step towards building a modern, fit-for-purpose NHS. But most importantly, it is a practical and impactful way of demonstrating to GPs that NHS bosses really care about preventing burnout and helping them to help more patients.
This is what matters, and this is what will save the GP services in Wales that do so much for so many.
Support our Nation today
For the price of a cup of coffee a month you can help us create an independent, not-for-profit, national news service for the people of Wales, by the people of Wales.