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28 October 2020updated 28 Aug 2021 9:47pm

Junior doctor survey reveals the areas of the NHS hit hardest by Covid-19

Demand for anaesthetics and psychiatry soared – while surgery and accident and emergency experienced a sudden drop.

By Michael Goodier

The extent to which workloads in the NHS were transformed by Covid-19 has been revealed by new data. A survey of junior doctors found that demand for anaesthetics and psychiatry soared – while surgery and accident and emergency experienced a sudden drop.

The survey, published by the General Medical Council, covered the first wave of the virus, which began in earnest in March. It was based on the responses of more than 38,000 trainee doctors and trainers. The research found that those working in occupational medicine (the management of disease in the workplace) were the most likely to say that their workload had increased. Some 63 per cent of such trainees said it had become heavier, compared to 21 per cent who said it had become lighter.

Those working in psychiatry were similarly affected, with 52 per cent saying their workload had got heavier and just 20 per cent lighter. Demand also rose for trainee anaesthetists, with 59 per cent experiencing a heavier workload and 27 per cent experiencing a lighter one. Anaethetists play a crucial role in intensive care – both stabilising and resuscitating critically ill patients – and often lead critical-care units.

The New Statesman has already reported how some parts of the NHS experienced a drop in patients after the UK went into lockdown as people chose to avoid going into hospital. The consequence of this – together with the postponement of all non-urgent elective surgery – is that staff working in certain specialities have noticed a decrease in their workload.

Notably, 53 per cent of junior doctors working in emergency medicine (A&E) said their workload had lightened, compared to 29 per cent who said it had increased. Some 53 per cent of surgeons also said they had a lighter workload (compared to 30 per cent who worked harder).

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Jacob Edwards – a junior doctor working in surgery at the time – told the New Statesman: “Personally, my job became much harder, but for some of my colleagues the workload lifted. The worry is that this lifting indicates a ‘backing-up’ of problems which we will now have to deal with, on top of the pandemic itself and the annual ‘winter surge’”. 

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Those working in pathology (dealing with specimens), radiology (medical imaging), and ophthalmology (eye disorders) also reported decreases in workload, most likely due to a drop in patients and procedures. The worry for the future is the extent to which this decrease in usual activity is storing up problems for the country’s health.

A positive finding from the survey is that widespread concern about a lack of PPE in hospitals has not persisted. Only 9 per cent of NHS staff said the support received from their organisation regarding personal health and safety was poor or very poor, and just 11 per cent said that any concerns relating to their personal safety were not taken seriously.