NHS Scotland crisis: Almost one in three doctors 'very' or 'fairly likely' to leave UK in urgent wake-up call

The report showing almost one in three doctors was ‘very’ or ‘fairly likely’ to leave the UK to work abroad in the next 12 months has been published by the General Medical Council

Almost one in three doctors have said they are likely to move abroad to work in the next 12 months in a damning new survey that senior medics said should act as an urgent “wake-up call” for the Scottish and UK governments.

The survey, carried out by the General Medical Council (GMC), asked doctors working in all four UK nations, including Scotland, how likely they were to move abroad to practise medicine in the next 12 months.

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More than 13 per cent of those practising in the UK answered “very likely”. A further 17 per cent said they were “fairly likely”.

Doctor and nurse discussing over a medical report in hospital. Female mature doctor and nurse checking clinical report of patient online. Healthcare staff having discussion in a hallway of private clinic.Doctor and nurse discussing over a medical report in hospital. Female mature doctor and nurse checking clinical report of patient online. Healthcare staff having discussion in a hallway of private clinic.
Doctor and nurse discussing over a medical report in hospital. Female mature doctor and nurse checking clinical report of patient online. Healthcare staff having discussion in a hallway of private clinic.

The initial results have been published as Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said the existence of the NHS was under threat from the SNP as he pledged his party would bring in “vital funds” for the service.

The party leader will lead an “NHS day of action” on Friday, where he is expected to campaign in Lanarkshire, outlining Labour’s plans for the health service.

Under proposals from shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, a further £1.6 billion would be spent on health under a Labour government to reduce NHS waiting lists in England – resulting in an expected £134 million in Barnett consequentials for Scotland.

The Scottish Government, which controls the NHS north of the border, has repeatedly said it will pass on any and all health consequentials received to the service.

More than 3,000 doctors were interviewed for the GMC survey on how they felt day-to-day, their experiences of working in the UK and their attitudes towards migration. A breakdown of the number of doctors interviewed in Scotland was not provided.

The report, entitled ‘Identifying groups of migrating doctors’, states those doctors most likely to indicate they would move abroad to practice medicine were found to be dissatisfied on more than one front, including with the political environment, UK healthcare systems and its effects on their wellbeing.

Those interviewed included doctors currently working in the UK, as well as those who had left the UK to practise abroad, and workers who had left and since returned.

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Doctors placed into the largest three groups from the research reported feeling overworked and under-supported. More than 75 per cent of doctors reported feeling under-valued professionally.

Recommendations contained in the report, which will be published in full on Friday, suggest targeting the top three groups of doctors – graded as ‘deep discontent’, ‘system sceptics’and ‘burnt-out’ – as a priority to help the UK’s overall workforce.

Professor Andrew Elder, president of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, said: “This is an important report which once again highlights the extent of discontent and concern among doctors across the UK at a time when our NHS remains overstretched. If the level of migration of doctors suggested by the survey is borne out, the impact on patients could be severe.

“Importantly, it is not only the working conditions in the NHS that provokes discontent, but also the view that our NHS is not meeting the needs of the patients it was created to serve.

“Burn-out among clinicians is a significant factor, and relates in part to the ‘moral distress’ that occurs when a doctor cannot provide the care to patients they feel they should. The recent Physicians’ Census showed that 20 per cent of respondents said they were at risk of burnout, with more than 40 per cent unable to take their full annual leave entitlement.”

Prof Elder added: “The report must act as another wake-up call to the governments of the UK to do far more to focus on the retention of doctors in our health service and persuade doctors to stay in the UK. We have consistently called for additional and urgent action on retention as well as new recruitment and this report reinforces the need for this.”

A snap poll, commissioned by the British Medical Association Scotland in December, had revealed eight in ten doctors believed staffing levels were unsafe, with Scottish doctors saying the NHS was like “working in a war zone”.

About 4,000 doctors who gave up their licence to practise or left the medical register in the UK last year gave “going to practise abroad” as one of their reasons for leaving, the GMC said.

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Charlie Massey, chief executive of the GMC, said of the body’s report: "This is a stark reminder of the challenges we face in the UK, but it also presents valuable insight into how healthcare leaders, employers and workforce planners can target interventions to improve conditions.

"Though the number of doctors actually leaving to practise abroad in 2023 was comparably low, these findings are a warning to all should conditions fail to improve.”

Scottish Conservative shadow health secretary Dr Sandesh Gulhane said: “Recruiting and retaining doctors is a challenge for the NHS throughout the UK. But that task is even harder here due to the SNP Government making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK."

Scottish Tory deputy health spokeswoman Tess White said the health service was in need of “urgent reform” and that her party had set out plans to recruit 1,000 more GPs, increase primary care funding and improve digitisation.

“A combination of the SNP’s dire workforce planning and Humza Yousaf’s flimsy Covid recovery plan have seen waiting times spiralling out of control, leading to tragic and avoidable deaths because there simply isn’t enough capacity in the NHS,” she said.

Speaking ahead of Scottish Labour’s campaign day, Mr Sarwar said: “The NHS is Labour’s greatest achievement, but the fact is that it’s very existence is at threat under the SNP. Labour’s bold plans to crack down on tax dodgers will deliver vital funds to get Scotland’s NHS back on track, cut waiting lists and help patients.

“This is the difference that a Labour government can and will make to the people of Scotland.”

SNP MSP Emma Harper, who is a registered nurse and sits on Holyrood’s health committee, said: “When it comes to threats to Scotland’s NHS, Anas Sarwar would do well to take a look in the mirror.

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“Just this week would-be Labour health secretary Wes Streeting pledged to force greater private sector involvement in our NHS, threatening to withhold funding without it – which Mr Sarwar has remained noticeably silent on.

“The Labour Party under Sir Keir Starmer have shown their true colours, supporting a damaging Brexit, nonsensical Tory economic orthodoxy and hostile immigration policies.

“The SNP meanwhile are standing up for Scotland’s values at Westminster and providing a real-terms increase in funding for Scotland’s health service, despite significant Tory cuts.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Staff wellbeing is our priority and to complement support available at a local level, we are investing around £2.5 million this year to provide access to a range of resources.

“We continue to invest heavily in our future consultant workforce with more doctors undertaking training in NHS Scotland than ever before. A total of 1,231 specialty training posts were advertised during the 2023 recruitment cycle and 94 per cent (1,156) were filled successfully.

“Working in partnership with the NHS Scotland, we are doing all we can to ensure our health service is able to recruit and retain staff. Our Health and Care (Staffing) (Scotland) Act, which came into force on April 1, supports the wellbeing of health and care staff to improve outcomes for the people using these services.

“We welcome the helpful insights from this research and will use them to consider how we can continue to attract, support and retain doctors in the future.”



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