Pandemic takes heavy toll on private doctors

By Robin Stride

The extent of the pandemic’s toll on independent practitioners has been revealed in a new survey for this journal showing that more than 44% of private doctors report feeling stressed and/or anxious on a weekly basis. 

They shared their feelings in a joint Independent Practitioner Today survey with the Medical Defence Union (MDU), featured in this issue.

Of concern is that as many as three in ten admit to ‘often’ going to work when they do not feel fit or well, with 6.9% strongly agreeing this happened.

Dr Udvitha Nandasoma

Dr Udvitha Nandasoma, MDU’s head of advisory services, said: ‘It is worrying that so many respondents feel stressed or anxious on a weekly basis and nearly a third are going to work when they do not feel fit to do so. 

‘Consequently, it’s important for independent practitioners to be provided with the necessary support when dealing with the additional pressures.’

Advice line

He said the MDU provides a 24-hour advice line for medico-legal queries and has a peer support network for members who are facing medico-legal challenges, such as complaints, inquests, GMC investigations and claims. 

‘This enables them to speak with a fellow member who has “been in their shoes” and who can offer both practical and emotional support and guidance.’

Thirty per cent of doctors told the survey they were unable to spend adequate time with patients (strongly agree 7.3%, agree 22.3%).

However, over 80% said they felt they were making a positive difference to their patients (strongly agree 22.3%, agree 58.8%). 

Some 16.5% revealed they believed they could not do their job effectively while 62.5% thought they could. 

Most felt supported by their colleagues, with 15.4% strongly agreeing and 49.6% agreeing they were. Nearly 7% disagreed.

The survey received 260 resp­onses, including 235 consultants, plus private GPs and independent practitioners doing other types of jobs.

Strained relationships

Relationships at work were ‘strained’ for just over 35.8% of doctors, with 5% expressing strong agreement that things were uneasy. For 40.8% this was not the case and 23.5% expressed no firm opinion.

When it came to work-life balance, only 40% of respondents considered they had a good one. 27.3% gave no verdict and nearly one-third believed they had got things in the right proportion.

When asked to rate their stress and anxiety levels now compared to before the pandemic, over half said things were worse – significantly worse 18%, a little worse 36.8%. Thirty-one per cent reported no change, 10.3% found them a ‘little’ better and for nearly 4% things had significantly improved

The extent to which doctors’ private practices have been affected since the pandemic presents a mixed picture. While 29% report a decrease in activity, 38% have seen an increase, while 34% report their amount of work is similar to pre-Covid levels.

But only just over a third (36%) plan to do more private practice work over the next two years. 

Four in ten (41.2%) do not plan to give more time to independent sector work in the foreseeable future at least. Around one in five (22.7%) answered they did not know what they would do.

Increased commitment 

Nearly two-thirds of independent practitioners provided additional NHS services during the pandemic. Thirty-four per cent did so throughout the crisis and continue to do so now.

But 28% who increased NHS commitment during the period are not doing so now. 37.9% supplied no extra NHS services.

Almost a third (30.4%) expect to do more NHS work over the next two years but this is not the choice for the majority (55.3%) while 14.3% are not sure what they will do.

The Covid experience has ushered in big changes, both good and bad, for many private practitioners and patients.

Being able to be seen quickly has always been an important attraction for patients facing long NHS waiting lists. But this private practice selling point has taken a knock and nearly a third of consultant respondents report their private patients are not being seen as quickly as they were.