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Survey reveals toll of staff shortages on doctors’ mental health

Post date: 17/05/2023 | Time to read article: 3 mins

The information within this article was correct at the time of publishing. Last updated 17/05/2023

95% of doctors in the UK believe the current staff shortages present ‘a significant threat’ to patient safety, and over half (54%) say the impact on patients is affecting their mental health, according to a survey by Medical Protection.

In the Medical Protection survey of 861 doctors, two in five (38%) 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 nearly half (49%) are considering their career in medicine due to the impact of staff shortages on patient safety.

Medical Protection, which protects the professional interests of over 300,000 healthcare professionals around the world, says the full NHS Workforce Plan cannot come too soon and must provide healthcare professionals with ‘a light at the end of the tunnel’.

It said the plan - aimed at increasing the number of healthcare professionals in the NHS to ensure it can cope with future challenges - must include mental health support to help retain the passionate, committed doctors currently in the workforce but on the verge of quitting.

Medical Protection is also calling on the General Medical Council (GMC) to reassure doctors that severe resource constraints will be considered if they are referred to the regulator following an adverse incident.

Medical Protection President, Professor Dame Jane Dacre, 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 excellent, or even adequate care, on a doctor’s mental wellbeing cannot be overstated, and nearly half of the doctors we surveyed say they are considering their career in medicine because of this.

“Many doctors are also worried about becoming embroiled in medicolegal disputes following adverse incidents arising due to staff shortages.

“The workforce is exhausted, fearful and many need support with mental health issues. When doctors’ mental wellbeing is poor it is not only damaging for them but also jeopardises patient care. The NHS Workforce Plan, promised in Spring, cannot come too soon, and I hope that once published in its entirety it will give healthcare professionals a light at the end of the tunnel. 

“The plan must also include comprehensive mental health support if we are to retain the many passionate, committed doctors who are demoralised and considering leaving medicine.

“One of the many problems with staff shortages is the knock-on effect on the exhaustion and mental health of remaining staff. If we don’t tackle this, they will leave, and this will negate any planned injection of new doctors.

“We would also welcome more reassurance from the GMC to reduce the fear, and the resulting impact on mental health, many doctors feel about being referred to the regulator due to staffing issues out of their control. During the pandemic the GMC issued a statement to acknowledge the challenges doctors were facing and offer reassurance that the extreme context would be considered. They took the same step again last winter. We feel the current staffing crisis warrants similar reassurance.”

Doctors commenting anonymously in the Medical Protection survey, said:

“Sometimes the standard of care is woefully inadequate due to long waits and pressures on the staff.” 

“It is demoralising to be continuously unable to provide the standard of care you know patients deserve due to inadequate staffing.”

“Watching patients get suboptimal care is exhausting and watching colleagues stretched beyond belief is upsetting. People get sick waiting for care as an inpatient and outpatient.”

“Every day is a battle between clinicians to decide whose list should take priority. We rarely have a day when at least one theatre list is cancelled because of lack of staff.”

“I am always exhausted. My career was everything to me, now I cannot wait to leave it.”


Notes to editors

For further information contact E: [email protected].

The survey was completed by 861 doctors in the UK. The survey was in the field from 20 March - 17 April 2023.

Key findings:

  • 95% of doctors said the staff shortages are a significant threat to patient safety.
  • 91% said they cannot see staffing levels improving in the foreseeable future.
  • 49% said the impact of staff shortages on patient safety has made them consider their career in healthcare.
  • 54% of doctors said the impact of staff shortages on patient safety is impacting their current mental wellbeing. Of those, 79% said the impact on their mental wellbeing is ‘moderate’ or ‘significant’.
  • 38% 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.

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