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Steep rise in early retirement for hospital doctors

NHS losing ‘talented doctors’ due to burn-out

Jo Carlowe

Wednesday, 05 September 2018

Hospital doctors in England and Wales are increasingly choosing to take early retirement, new figures show.

The data* was released to the The British Medical Journal by the NHS Business Service Authority in response to a Freedom of Information Request. They show that the number of hospital doctors claiming their NHS pension on grounds of voluntary early retirement rose from 164 in 2008 to 397 in 2018.

The number retiring on ill health grounds rose from 12 to 79 over the same period.

A greater proportion of doctors claiming their pensions now do so on health grounds or are taking voluntary early retirement. In 2008, 14% of hospital doctors claiming their NHS pension took voluntary early retirement; in 2018, 27% of doctors did so. In 2008, 1% retired on grounds of ill health; in 2018, 5% did.

The total number of hospital doctors choosing to take their pension (whether on grounds of age, voluntary early retirement, or ill health) rose by 22% from 1205 in 2008 to 1475 in 2018. The total number of hospital doctors working in the NHS rose by 21% over the same period, and the proportion of doctors choosing to retire was 1.25% in 2008 and 1.27% in 2018.

Commenting, Dr Rob Harwood, British Medical Association consultants committee chair, said: “These figures are concerning but certainly not surprising for doctors working in understaffed and under-resourced hospitals across the country. Given the combined pressures of mounting demand, unmanageable workloads and widespread gaps in rotas, it is to be expected that doctors may ultimately choose to leave the profession early.

“What is most worrying, however, is the six-fold rise in those retiring early due to ill-health, clearly illustrating the effect these pressures are having on the physical and mental wellbeing of doctors, with many finding themselves at high risk of stress and burnout.”

He added: “No patient should be treated by a sick doctor, so ministers and policymakers must improve working conditions across the NHS, properly planning rotas to avoid understaffing and prevent unsafe situations. Transitional arrangements for those approaching retirement should also be made more available, including better opportunities for flexible working and an end to overnight working.

“Occupational health services play a significant role in keeping staff at work and preventing ill-health retirements. Comprehensive occupational health services must be put in place if we are to keep doctors healthy, safe and in the profession for longer.

“These figures are the tip of the iceberg, and without urgent action the NHS will lose even more talented doctors at a time when it can least afford it.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “There are near-record numbers of NHS doctors working tirelessly to make sure patients get excellent, safe care and we are committed to supporting them in the workplace. To help them balance work-life commitments, we are expanding flexible working schemes and e-rostering, and to ensure the NHS has the doctors it needs now and in the future we are increasing training places by 25%.”

In March The BMJ reported on figures from the NHS Business Services Authority showing that GPs were also increasingly choosing to take early retirement. The number of GPs claiming their NHS pension on grounds of voluntary early retirement increased from 198 in 2007-08 to 721 in 2016-17, and the number retiring on ill health grounds rose from 12 to 63 over the same period. The number retiring on age grounds fell from 944 in 2007-08 to 380 in 2016-17.

In response to a report on figures showing a rise in hospital doctors taking earlier retirement, an NHS Employers spokesperson said:

“There are a variety of reasons why staff may choose to take their pension benefits early.

“For example and in particular, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that some staff choose to take their benefits early for personal taxation reasons. Others may of course wish to retire and return to work in the NHS in a different capacity, with reduced hours.

“Comparison of data between 2008 and 2018 is challenging as there are different NHS pension schemes in effect during this period, with different benefits and retirement ages. Nonetheless reform of taxation of public sector pensions would be welcomed by the NHS who wish to retain critical medical talents.”

*Moberly T. More hospital doctors are opting to retire early. BMJ 2018; 362 :k3744

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