The number of doctors retiring early has more than trebled since 2008, prompting fears that burnout and high pension tax bills are prompting medics to leave the NHS.
While 401 GPs and hospital doctors in England and Wales took early retirement in 2007-08, that number had soared to 1,358 in 2020-21 – an increase of 239% in 13 years.
Doctors who quit before they are due to retire are also getting younger – the average age is now just 59 – new research by the BMJ reveals.
The medical journal obtained the figures from the NHS Business Services Authority through a freedom of information request.
There is growing concern that the Covid pandemic has intensified the strain many medics were already under as a result of the growing demand for NHS care in recent years and increased the number of doctors suffering from mental health problems such as anxiety and PTSD.
Many doctors work long hours, including antisocial shifts, and complain of relentless workloads, while some struggle to reconcile childcare with the demands of working in the NHS.
Prof Martin Marshall, the chair of the Royal College of GPs (RCGP), said: “These figures reflect what we are hearing from our members in general practice. The intense workload and workforce pressures that GPs and our teams have been working under, which far pre-date Covid-19 but have been exacerbated by the pandemic, are taking their toll.
“When fully trained, often high-experienced GPs are deciding to leave the profession earlier than they planned to due to workload pressure, it is a huge loss to the profession and patient care.”
A recent survey of RCGP members found that 8% of respondents planned to leave the profession in the next year, 15% in the next two years, and 34% in the next five years, Marshall said. While about half of those were due for retirement, a quarter of GPs involved identified stress and burnout as reasons for leaving.
If they did quit, that could equate to patients losing 3,000 of the UK’s 40,000 family doctors by 2022, 6,000 by 2023 and 14,000 by 2026, he added. That would jeopardise Boris Johnson’s ability to deliver his pledge to increase the number of GPs by 6,000 by 2024.
The British Medical Association, the main doctors’ trade union, said many doctors were retiring early in order to avoid being hit with hefty pension tax bills.
“Repeated surveys from the BMA have demonstrated that over half of doctors plan to retire before the age of 60, with the majority citing pensions taxation as their primary reason,” said Dr Vishal Sharma, the chair of the BMA’s pensions committee.
The number of doctors retiring early has risen dramatically since the government began making changes to the NHS pension scheme and pensions taxation rules. Doctors had been left with little option but to consider early retirement, Sharma said.
“The combination of an exhausted workforce coupled with the freezing of the lifetime allowance [until 2026] being imposed at the same time will potentially result in a mass exodus of highly experienced doctors, at a time when patients need them the most.”
In 2013-14 the highest number of doctors of the last 13 years retired early: 2,069. Tom Moberly, the BMJ journalist who undertook the research, said the sharp rise in that year “is likely to be doctors leaving ahead of the 2015 changes to the NHS pension scheme. In 2015 the NHS closed two sections of the NHS pension scheme, moving three-quarters of staff on to a newer scheme with less valuable retirement benefits.”
The Department of Health and Social Care was approached for comment.