Hospital Dr News

NHS patients at risk from shortage of anaesthetists, college census reveals

The number of consultants joining the anaesthetic workforce in the NHS is insufficient to meet patient demand.

That’s the finding of a census by the Royal College of Anaesthetists (RCoA), which says consultant numbers will need to double to maintain the levels required to deliver safe and effective healthcare.

Service pressures are heightened by increases in staff rota gaps, high vacancy rates and an ageing anaesthetic workforce.

The Medical Workforce Census Report 2015 shows that, while there was an annual average increase between 2007 and 2015 in anaesthesia consultant numbers, this is still less than half the required increase.

CfWI projections showed that, with increasing pressure on the NHS, both anaesthetic and ICM workforce levels in England may be required to rise by more than 300 consultants per year – over double the current rate.

This review found that 15% of anaesthetic and 25% of ICM need is currently unmet within UK hospitals.

Data within the RCoA’s report shows that within more than half of UK anaesthetic departments, trainee/specialty doctor rota gaps had increased over the previous 12 months. With NHS spending on agency staff reaching a record £3.3 billion in 20152, the report reveals that 98% of anaesthetic departments are relying on internal locums and 74% use external locums to cover staff shortages.

Another major threat to the workforce is that of the ageing anaesthetist, with a 28% increase over the same period in the number of consultants aged between 50 and 59 years.

Dr Liam Brennan, President of the RCoA, said: “The report, highlighting rota gaps, vacant posts and an ageing workforce, in an acute, high-pressure specialty such as anaesthesia is very concerning. These workforce shortcomings combined with spiralling service pressures suggest that we are heading for a perfect storm with implications for the welfare of both patients and clinicians.

“These data, representing the most comprehensive census of the UK anaesthesia workforce, demonstrates a compelling case for additional training posts in anaesthesia and ICM if we are to avert detrimental effects on future access to vital services and safe patient care.”

Other key findings identified in the report include:

  • During 2015, 89% of England’s anaesthesia departments covered gaps in trainee/specialty doctor rotas more frequently than once a week. Significantly, this figure reached 100% of departments in Northern Ireland, 92 percent in Wales and 35% in Scotland.
  • Across the UK, 329 (4.4%) of consultant and 223 (11%) specialty Trust-grade posts were vacant during 2015.
  • Half of anaesthetic departments reported using consultants ‘acting down’ to cover trainee rota gaps.


Read the full report.

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