Psychiatry risks becoming an endangered medical speciality because of the failure of successive governments to undertake robust workforce planning, says the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
Psychiatry training positions have been fully subscribed in recent years. However, feedback from College members suggests that chronic workforce shortages, burnout from excessive workloads, and poor work-life balance are contributing to many consultants considering early retirement or leaving the profession entirely. These issues stem from working in an overstretched and understaffed system.
Based on NHS England targets to expand the workforce from 2016 onwards, there is currently a shortfall of 690 consultant psychiatrists across England – 15% of the current consultant psychiatrist workforce. New analysis of NHS workforce statistics shows a growth of only 5.8% in the number of consultant psychiatrists working in the NHS across England, over a 10-year period between 2013 and 2023, from 4,222 to 4,466, with a small decline becoming apparent over the past year.
This compares with an 86% increase in emergency medicine consultants (1,295 to 2,403), an 85% increase in respiratory medicine consultants (741 to 1,357) and a 72% increase in gastro-enterology consultants (880 to 1,518) over the same period.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists is calling on the Government to urgently publish the NHS Workforce Plan and commit to expanding the psychiatric workforce to meet the record demand for specialist mental health services. A record 4.6 million referrals were made during 2021/2022, as demand only continues to rise in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Professor Subodh Dave, Dean of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said:
“In the absence of robust workforce planning, years of understaffing has left the psychiatric workforce on life support. We have seen minimal increases in consultant psychiatrist numbers since 2012, while other specialities have had far more workforce growth. Our members are retiring or leaving the field, in no small part because of burnout and low morale caused by excessive workloads.
“If the Workforce Plan adequately addresses issues of staff retention - as well as longer-term recruitment - this would go some way to helping to address these challenges.
“With around one in ten consultant psychiatrist posts vacant, we are calling on the Government to publish the NHS Workforce Plan, backed by adequate funding, as a matter of urgency. It’s time to end the dither and delay.”
“Consultant psychiatrists lead multidisciplinary teams of psychiatric nurses, psychologists, occupational therapists and social workers or other specialists, which treat patients with complex mental health needs such as depression, eating disorders and addictions, as well as patients with severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. They also help train the next generation of psychiatrists, meaning mental health services cannot function without them. If we are to expect a high standard of care for patients, we must ensure the people providing that care are also well looked after.”
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