The problem of practitioner burnout and the effect on healthcare

How has medical worker burnout impacted on patient health? We explore this question in this article…

The pandemic was pretty tough on a lot of us in terms of finance, freedom and mental health but, for a significant number of people, the impact has had a much wider reach. In the wake of COVID-19, legal action regarding medical negligence has begun to soar as patients complain about inadequate and, in some cases, grossly negligent care during the last two years.

A recent NMC report suggests that a great deal of these complaints come as a result of burnout for medical professionals. In this article, we’ll examine doctor burnout and the impact that it has on patient care.

What is practitioner burnout?

Until recently, the term ‘burnout’ was usually associated with power professions, such as city traders, however, the pandemic has changed all that. Burnout refers to a severe type of work related stress whereby a person experiences extreme physical and/or emotional exhaustion. This can often become debilitating, leading to an inability to function and properly perform their work obligations.

Often, the sufferer will feel the need to resign from their role and take some time out in order to recover. While this can be a distressing experience for most people, in the case of medical professionals, it can have an extremely dangerous knock-on effect for patients.

“We’ve all got that Covid fatigue. We’re exhausted by the way we’re living and working. And it’s really difficult. The thing is, we’re coming up to winter, we’ve got to step up to the mark again. And it’s whether we have the resilience to deal with that. And, of course, we’ll have to because there’s just no more capacity and no more staff to handle it.” – Anonymous MacMillan Cancer Nurse

How burnout has made its way into practitioner’s lives

As COVID-19 began to sweep the globe in early 2020, the NHS was put under an enormous amount of pressure as it tried to cope with an unprecedented number of patients. Numbers of hospital admissions reached record levels and, while we heard a great deal about hospital staff, the UK’s 7,613 GP practices tended to become the forgotten heroes.

During the pandemic, most GPs were unable to see patients in person as social distancing guidelines prohibited face to face appointments. For these professionals, this meant battling with technology in order to attempt to diagnose ailments, overcome language barriers and reassure patients – all by telephone or video call.

In the midst of this, a significant number of GPs either contracted COVID-19 themselves, or were forced to isolate due to cases within their household and practices.

Despite the emergence of the Omicron variant, the pressure on NHS hospitals began to ease considerably in late 2021 – but the opposite was true for the UK’s GPs. The easing of restrictions meant that patients began flooding back to their GPs and, in fact, figures show that the number of weekly GP prescriptions increased by 272,109 in October 2021 compared to the previous year – a rise of 4.5 percent.

Needless to say, this put an immense amount of pressure on UK GPs, after what had been an incredibly difficult couple of years, and many found themselves simply unable to cope. This is, essentially, where practitioners are tipped over the edge into burnout; a state which is dangerous both for themselves and for their patients.

How does practitioner burnout impact patients?

Burnout brings with it a number of symptoms, including depression, exhaustion, anxiety and an inability to concentrate. Unfortunately, in the case of medical professionals, this is incredibly dangerous as it can lead to the misdiagnoses of illnesses, mistakes with prescriptions and medications, and a general apathy toward patients.

While some mistakes can – and have been – remedied quickly, many more have had devastating effects on patients, leading to a large jump in medical negligence claims. Although we can, of course, understand and empathise with GPs and the pressure that they have been under, this is little comfort for the patients and families who have had to deal with the consequences of this.

To put the problem into context, it was reported in November 2021 that General Practice in the UK may be facing a staggering £44 million in Covid related negligence claims. These claims have become a pandemic of their own, resulting in government action whereby the Coronavirus Act 2020 was amended to provide additional indemnity coverage in cases of clinical negligence liability as a coronavirus response to protect medical professionals. 

What is the future of practitioner mental health?

GPs and other medical professionals in the UK are some of the hardest working individuals in the world. While we can, of course, accept that the COVID-19 pandemic was something that our medical professionals could not have predicted – and appreciate their efforts to continue working under such extraordinary circumstances – there are still questions to be answered.

Since its inception in 1948, patients in the UK have been putting their trust in the NHS, including GPs, dentists and hospital staff. In the light of the recent NMC report on practitioner burnout, there are now fresh calls for the organisation to tackle this very real, and very dangerous problem. This is in hopes to reassure patients that their health and safety is still the number one priority for the NHS – both now and in the future.

Photo by LoboStudioHamburg from Pixabay.