GPs Get £20m Scheme to Help Them Cope with Stress

Counselling and treatment for mental health issues to be offered, in the hope of boosting UK retention in the profession

GPs Get £20m Scheme to Help Them Cope with Stress
The number of GPs fell slightly last year despite a government pledge to recruit more. Photograph: Anthony Devlin/PA

Family doctors with heavy workloads are to receive specialist help to cope with the stress of their jobs in a groundbreaking new NHS initiative.

All 55,000 GPs in England will be able to seek counselling or medication from mental health nurses and psychiatrists in a £20m scheme to keep them healthy. The NHS GP Health Service will be trialled in 13 areas and then rolled out nationally if it proves its worth.

NHS England is encouraging family doctors who have become addicted to drink or drugs as a result of difficulties in their personal or professional lives to refer themselves for treatment.

The GP Health Service is the first support system of its kind in the world, aiming to tackle anxiety, depression and feelings of hopelessness among doctors. It is hoped that GPs who get emotional and psychological support will be less likely to go on sick leave or quit the profession because they feel they can no longer withstand the pressures involved.

Professor Sir Bruce Keogh, NHS England’s national medical director, told the Observer: “Being a GP is tough. It requires a deep knowledge of medicine and an ability to separate the serious from the trivial, coupled with compassion. As the number and complexity of consultations grows, so does the stress of the job. This takes its toll.

“Both sickness and early retirement rates are rising. These pilot schemes aim to offer help on both fronts to key members of the profession who contribute so much to the lives of so many. Helping struggling GPs means a happier, healthier workforce and in turn a greatly improved service for patients,” he added.

Dr Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the council of the Royal College of GPs, said: “Being a GP can be incredibly stressful, so it’s no wonder the intense resource and workforce pressures currently facing our profession are increasingly taking their toll on the mental health and wellbeing of family doctors.”

The new scheme is based on the Practitioner Health Programme (PHP), which has been offering mental health support to both GPs and hospital doctors for the last nine years. NHS England is giving the Hurley Group of GP surgeries, which runs the PHP, almost £20m over the next five years to provide the same help to any family doctor who feels they would benefit.

Dr Clare Gerada, a partner in the Hurley Group, said that 80 of 100 doctors the PHP has treated for addiction problems have been able to go back to work afterwards. Similarly, 75% of those with bipolar disorder have returned to the frontline after receiving up to six months of treatment themselves.

The PHP helped one GP, who only wanted to be known as Dr S, who was already struggling to meet demand for patient consultations and neglecting his family life after one of the partners in his busy urban practice retired, when he received a complaint from a patient. That led to Dr S having sleepless nights and feeling that he had let down his partners. His morale declined, he lost his confidence and eventually handed in his notice. After getting help from the PHP, though, he came back to work.

“I had lost my love for the GP job, a job I had wanted to do all my life. I thought it was time to walk away but thanks to PHP I now feel I have brought the enjoyment back into the role,” he said.

“I am relishing my responsibilities and enjoying every day. I would have been a GP on the rubbish heap if it wasn’t for this kind of support service.” He now helps his colleagues at the surgery manage what many GPs describe as the relentless demands on their time and the need to make key decisions about patients’ care and treatment.

GPs will refer themselves to the service. Each of the 13 pilot areas will have a regional network of experienced doctors and therapists. Callers will receive a telephone assessment within 48 hours and then a more detailed face-to-face assessment close to their home, but not at their surgery to protect their privacy. Staff will deal with a range of mental health conditions, although they will leave existing NHS services to handle eating disorders and serious depression.

GPs in Oxfordshire caused a row last week when they revealed they were examining ways of boosting their funding, for example by charging patients for providing appointments outside of normal surgery hours and carrying out minor surgical procedures, such as vasectomies.

Official NHS figures last week showed that the number of full-time equivalent GPs working in England had fallen over the last year, despite the government’s pledge to recruit 5,000 more by 2020.

NHS Digital revealed that the family doctor workforce comprised 34,495 full-time equivalent GPs in September, 97 fewer than a year earlier.

Stokes-Lampard warned that high vacancy rates in GP surgeries were having “a real human impact on our entire practice teams and our patients. We are already running on empty and in many cases working at the absolute limit of what is safe,” she said.

Source: the Guardian