Doctors’ leaders call for warning system for GP burnout

BMJ 2015; 351 doi: (Published 30 July 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;351:h4152
  1. Adrian O’Dowd
  1. 1London

General practice needs its own system that allows for “distress signals” when GPs are dangerously tired and overloaded, doctors’ leaders have said, to help ensure that patient safety issues do not arise.

The Royal College of General Practitioners launched a consultation document on 29 July,1 in which it made several proposals for protecting GPs’ wellbeing to prevent them becoming too exhausted to provide safe care.

GP fatigue is a serious risk to patient safety, said the college, which called for regular, mandatory breaks for staff to help minimise the possibility of errors; a mechanism to identify practices that are under extreme workload pressures and provide measures to relieve these; and a full scale review of how to reduce daily pressures in general practice.

GPs, unlike professionals working in other “safety critical” sectors such as aviation or the oil and gas industries, could not sound a “distress signal” when they felt overwhelmed or struggling with workload, said the college. And fatigue in general practice has considerable potential for patient harm—such as drug errors, incorrect diagnosis, and mistaken patient identity—if GPs are persistently overtired, it warned.

Consistent and increasing workload pressures were pushing GPs to exhaustion, said the college, adding that, from 2008-9 to 2013-14, the number of people attending general practice had grown by 19% in England from 303 million to 361 million. Over the same period the total number of GPs across the United Kingdom grew by just 4.1%, and general practice was now managing 150 000 extra patients a day when compared with 2008.

Maureen Baker, chair of the college, said, “GP fatigue is a clear and present danger to patient safety—and we urgently need to find workable solutions that will keep our patients safe now and in the future.

“Few of us would voluntarily board a plane flown by a visibly tired pilot or get on a train where we knew the driver had spent too much time at the controls—yet there are no methods or systems for addressing doctor and staff fatigue in general practice.”


Cite this as: BMJ 2015;351:h4152


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