According to a paper prepared for the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) published on 29 July 2015, Britain’s GPs are so stressed and overworked that they are at risk of causing harm to their patients.

Dr Maureen Baker, the chair of the RCGP and author of the paper, highlights that unrelenting pressures and increasing workloads are pushing GPs to their limits as they try to cope with rising patient numbers and resources being cut. 

Drawing a comparison with professionals that work in other safety-critical sectors such as aviation or the oil and gas industries, she notes that there is no mechanism for GPs to send out a “distress signal” when they are overwhelmed or struggling with fatigue. 

The paper reports that the number of people attending general practices is growing rapidly. Between 2008/9 and 2013/14 the number of consultations rose by 19% in England alone. To highlight the challenges faced by GPs, the paper details that GPs and their teams are now seeing around 370 million patients per year in England and general practices are managing 150,000 more patients a day compared to 2008. 

Although safety risks in general practice are inherently lower than those in hospitals, the rising numbers increase the risk of errors being made and harm being done to patients. The risks identified by the paper are medication errors, mistaken patient identity, misdiagnosing or a delay in diagnosing illnesses, and failing to monitor a patient’s condition properly or to investigate emerging evidence about their illness thoroughly.

Dr Baker said the report is not intended to panic patients but “to send out a pre-emptive strike to ensure that we take steps now to protect patients from the risks arising from doctor and staff fatigue".

Five recommendations have been made in a consultation paper also published today in an attempt to prevent GPs becoming too overworked. These include taking regular mandatory breaks, including a mechanism to identify practices under extreme workloads, and a full-scale review of how daily pressure in general practice can be reduced.

In addition to these recommendations, a spokesperson for the Department of Health acknowledged the stress suffered by GPs saying that they are “committed to making 10,000 more staff available for general practice by 2020, including 5,000 more GPs.”

It is clear that steps need to be implemented as a matter of urgency in light of the risks identified by Dr Baker in the paper. Penningtons Manches has previously reported (click here for the article) on the immense pressures and excessive workloads of GPs and the impact this is having on the profession. 

The Penningtons Manches clinical negligence team deals with a number of claims on behalf of patients against GPs who have failed to correctly investigate or diagnose their symptoms. While the team understands the pressures they are facing, it is important that measures are implemented to prevent patients being put at unnecessary risk. 

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