Overworked doctors must be allowed to rest and recover so they can keep patients safe, BMA warns

BMA calls for an honest conversation with the public about the need for a realistic approach to restoring non-COVID care, and support for systems to tackle the backlog. 

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Doctors must be allowed to rest and recuperate from the exhaustion of working throughout the pandemic if we want to have safe patient care in the future, the BMA has said.

In a new report, Rest, recover, restore: Getting UK health services back on track, the Association argues that the pandemic has left the health service running on empty, with staff burnt out, disillusioned, and even considering leaving the NHS as a result of the intense pressures and stress of the past year.

The report points out that pushing doctors to ‘get the NHS back to normal’, without giving them the respite and support they need, will not only result in increasingly high absence rates and staff reducing their hours, but also threaten patient care and safety. 

Against a backdrop of current workforce shortages, patient demand outstripping staffing levels, and tens of thousands of clinical and non-clinical vacancies in hospitals and a shortage of GPs, the BMA says that the need for a strong and healthy workforce is obvious. 

As a result, the BMA has set out a series of recommendations to UK Governments to ensure that services resume safely for both staff and patients, including: 

  1. All Governments and system leaders across the UK to have an honest conversation with the public about the need for a realistic approach to restoring non-COVID care, and support for systems to tackle the backlog. 
  2. Health, safety, and mental wellbeing of the workforce to remain a top priority. 
  3. Additional resourcing to help tackle the backlog.
  4. Measures to expand system capacity.
  5. Measures to expand the workforce and retain existing staff.

The report also suggests measures for UK Governments to make it easier for retired doctors to re-join the workforce and to take meaningful action to retain existing doctors. 

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA council chair, said: “It’s clear that the backlog has to be reduced, but forcing doctors to just ‘get back to normal’ without respite and support is not the way forward and endangers patient safety and staffing ratios now and in the longer run. 

“While some, exhausted and burnt out, might take more sick leave, others may decide to leave the NHS altogether – talented, committed healthcare professionals that embody everything our health service stands for. 

“Fundamentally, asking too much of doctors too soon could not just have a detrimental impact on patient safety, it could potentially increase already lengthy waiting times – something both patients and doctors desperately want to avoid. 

“As our report lays out, this realistic approach must be complemented with a dedicated effort to attract more staff into the NHS, not only to help bring down the numbers of patients on the wating list, but to also fill gaps for existing staff taking time to recuperate. 

“The wellbeing of our healthcare workforce must be viewed as a critical priority for the effectiveness of the NHS. This report gives a stark warning to Government: to ignore the threat posed by burnout is to put future services and patient care at risk.”

According to the latest BMA tracker survey published last month, more than half of respondents reported a worse state of overall health and wellbeing than during the first wave of the pandemic, while two thirds reported higher than normal levels of exhaustion or fatigue.

In the same survey, when asked if they have changed their career plans for the next year, 26% of doctors said they were more likely to take an early retirement, another 26% said they were more likely to take a career break, and 18% said the same about leaving the NHS for another career. 

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