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Doctors ‘running on empty’ says Royal College of Physicians

The ninth survey of RCP fellows and members during the COVID-19 pandemic shows that while morale appears to have slightly improved, physicians who have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic are now in urgent need of rest and recuperation.

Half of the UK’s doctors (49%) are not getting enough sleep according to our latest survey of members and fellows. The emotional and physical toll of working through a global pandemic for almost a year has left doctors exhausted and in desperate need of rest.

Only 51% reported getting the amount of sleep they needed all or most of the time in the previous four weeks. London’s clinicians were the worst affected, with only 42% getting the amount of sleep they need all or most of the time, and 11% saying they never get the amount of sleep they need, compared to 8% for doctors elsewhere in the UK.

While morale appears to have slightly improved, with only 28% of doctors feeling worried this month compared to 48% last month, a large proportion (63%) still felt tired or exhausted and 27% said they felt demoralised.

Despite this, 63% said there had been no discussion in their organisation about timetabled time off to recuperate. The RCP believes that staff must be given time off to rest and recover from the pressure of the pandemic so they are ready to face the next challenge of tackling pent-up demand of non-COVID-19 care.

The backlog of delayed non-COVID-19 treatment continues to build. Delays to diagnostic testing for both inpatient and outpatient services are becoming worse, with endoscopy and clinical physiology services the most severely affected. 90% of doctors reported delays in both for outpatients, up from 82% for endoscopy and 83% for clinical physiology in November 2020. Nuclear medicine services are also experiencing serious delays, with 74% citing delays for outpatients and 64% for inpatients.

Professor Andrew Goddard, president of the Royal College of Physicians, said: “Doctors are running on empty. This has been the hardest year many of us have ever faced and, while physicians have shown incredible strength and resilience throughout the pandemic, they and their colleagues can’t keep working this way forever.

“Plans for tackling the backlog of non-COVID-19 care must recognise that recovery of NHS services includes the recovery of NHS staff. It’s important that healthcare workers take time off, so it is worrying to see so many physicians have not had this conversation at their place of work.

“We know many of the pressures felt throughout the pandemic have stemmed from workforce pressures, so while in the long-term we need to double the number of medical school places, what we can do for now is agree to restart the NHS in a way that takes account of the emotional and physical toll of the pandemic so colleagues can rest and recuperate.”

About the survey

This survey was sent out via an email to approximately 25,500 RCP members in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland on Friday 12 February 2021 and was filled in by 1,168 people over a period of 72 hours.

This is the ninth survey the RCP has sent to its members during the COVID-19 pandemic.