Survey reveals toll of staff shortages on doctors’ mental health

20 December 2023

93% of doctors in Ireland believe staff shortages present ‘a significant threat’ to patient safety, and nearly 2 in 5 (38%) say the impact on patients is affecting their mental health, according to a survey by Medical Protection.

In the Medical Protection survey of 872 doctors, over a third (36%) say the fear of being sued or investigated due to incidents arising from staff shortages is also having a detrimental impact on their mental health, and two in five (41%) are considering their future in medicine due to the impact of staff shortages on patient safety.

The survey results follow a warning from the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) in September, that public health services face another year of doctor shortages as consultant posts remain vacant, many younger doctors are emigrating and there are serious difficulties in recruiting GPs. Ireland is already below the OECD average for the number of doctors per head of population.

Medical Protection, which protects the professional interests of over 300,000 healthcare professionals around the world, including over 16,000 in Ireland, says urgent action is needed to retain the passionate, committed doctors currently in the workforce, and attract more doctors to Ireland.

Dr Rob Hendry, Medical Director at Medical Protection, said: “The fact that most doctors feel the under resourced environments they work in present a significant threat to patient safety, is a sad reflection of the times and is distressing for patients and doctors alike.

“The effect of not being able to provide good care on a doctor’s mental health cannot be overstated, and two in five of the doctors we surveyed say they are reconsidering their career in healthcare because of this.

“Many doctors are also worrying about becoming embroiled in medicolegal issues following adverse incidents arising due to staff shortages outside of their control.

“When doctors’ mental health is poor it is not only damaging for them but can also jeopardise patient care. The winter period is always challenging, however staff shortages are creating extreme pressure this winter. Furthermore, most doctors who took part in our survey (83%) can’t see staffing levels improving in the foreseeable future.

“One of the many problems with staff shortages - aside from patient safety - is the knock-on effect on the exhaustion and mental health of remaining staff. We need to see urgent steps towards retaining the passionate, committed doctors currently in the workforce but on the verge of quitting, and attracting more doctors to Ireland both in the short and long term.

We encourage healthcare professionals who are struggling, to make use of the mental wellbeing resources available. For example, Medical Protection provides an independent, 24/7 counselling service  as a benefit of membership. There is also the Practitioner Health Matters Programme, the IMO’s Doctor Health and Wellbeing hub and the Health in Practice Programme which is run by the Irish College General Practitioners.”

Doctors commenting anonymously in the Medical Protection survey, said:

“Having difficulty in trying to retire as almost impossible to find replacement and I do not wish to let down my colleagues and patients who attend the practice. Also having to work while ill due to demands of practice.”

“Staff shortages are getting progressively worse. Staff cannot keep up with demand of the workload and patients are getting frustrated, taking out their frustrations on staff members. A general consensus from colleagues is that people are unhappy in the workplace and the majority are reconsidering a move out of the health service which will only further pressurise the HSE.”

“The stress of trying to manage patients left without appointments due to staff absences is difficult for remaining team members.”

“Staff shortages lead to inability to take leave entitlements, longer hours and more stress during these hours and ultimately further staff shortages due to colleagues leaving because of the stressful environment. It is a vicious circle.”

“Often dread coming to work due to staff shortage, can’t even take annual leave because of it, feel that life is too short to keep doing this to myself and my family so hospital medicine is not for me in the future.”


Notes to editors

For further information contact E: [email protected].

IMO press release (September 2023): IMO warns of serious shortage of doctors in our public health services

The Medical Protection survey was completed by 872 doctors in Ireland. The survey was in the field during April/May 2023.

Key findings:

  • 93% of doctors agree that staff shortages are a significant threat to patient safety.
  • 83% said they can’t see staffing levels improving in the foreseeable future.
  • 41% said the impact of staff shortages on patient safety has made them consider their career in healthcare.
  • 38% of doctors said the impact of staff shortages on patient safety is impacting their current mental wellbeing. Of those, 86% said the impact on their mental wellbeing is moderate (48%) or significant (38%).
  • 36% said fear of medicolegal issues arising from staff shortages is impacting their current mental wellbeing.

About MPS

The Medical Protection Society Limited (“MPS”) is the world’s leading protection organisation for doctors, dentists and healthcare professionals. We protect and support the professional interests of more than 300,000 members around the world. Membership provides access to expert advice and support and can also provide, depending on the type of membership required, the right to request indemnity for any complaints or claims arising from professional practice.

Our in-house experts assist with the wide range of legal and ethical problems that arise from professional practice. This can include clinical negligence claims, complaints, medical and dental council inquiries, legal and ethical dilemmas, disciplinary procedures, inquests and fatal accident inquiries.

Our philosophy is to support safe practice in medicine and dentistry by helping to avert problems in the first place. We do this by promoting risk management through our workshops, E-learning, clinical risk assessments, publications, conferences, lectures and presentations.

MPS is not an insurance company. All the benefits of membership of MPS are discretionary as set out in the Memorandum and Articles of Association.