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Overworked GPs need “distress signal” RCGP says

29 July 2015

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In line with other safety-critical areas, GPs need a ‘distress signal’ they can sound when they are overwhelmed or on the brink of burnout, otherwise patient safety is at risk, the Royal College of GPs (RCGP) warned today.

GPs are working longer days, followed by many hours after surgery and at weekends trying to keep up to date with urgent paperwork, leading to “widespread fatigue”, RCGP added.

This could “jeopardise patient safety on a widespread scale unless urgent action is taken,” the college cautioned.

Dr Maureen Baker, RCGP chair, said: “GPs will always work in the best interests of their patients – even when they are putting their own health at risk – but ironically this can actually have an adverse effect on patient safety.

“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,” she added.

In other areas of the NHS there are ‘distress signals’ such as red and black alerts in hospitals so that other clinicians can declare that they cannot take on further work safely, Baker stated, and GP practices under extreme workload pressure need a similar mechanism.

She also advocated a full-scale review on how daily pressures – including beurocracy – can be reduced, and the introduction of regular, mandatory breaks to minimise the possibility of errors.

She added: “Our intention is not 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.”