medical student burnout

Dr Anas Nader, co-founder and CEO at Patchwork Health, reimagines what an NHS career can look like to protect medical students from burnout.

An unprecedented cohort of over 9,000+ Generation-Z medical students are fast-approaching the end of their first year of medical school. This oversubscribed year group follows a 21 per cent year-on-year rise in applications, perhaps inspired by the pandemic, and an expansion in the number of students able to study medicine.

However, a mere month after these hopeful medics began their studies, a survey revealed that nearly three in four staff were considering leaving the NHS for another career.  Excessive workload, stress and inflexible hours were leaving experienced staff with little option but to quit. The enthusiasm of the latest crop of aspiring doctors is starkly juxtaposed against these climbing rates of resignation. 

Reinventing workforce systems

Although more funding than ever is rightly being poured into training and recruiting, the BMA’s ‘Medical Staffing in England’ report suggests that the future medical workforce shortage could reach 83,779 full-time doctors by 2043. This is because the pipeline is broken, leaking talent and skills. Look below the surface, and sadly you’ll see far too many medical students, F1 and F2 doctors burning out, dropping out, or stepping back. 

Having witnessed this first-hand while working as an A&E doctor, it is clear to me that this cannot go on. We cannot send this influx of new medical students down the same broken path as their predecessors. To meet the future demands of NHS staffing, we need to fundamentally reinvent workforce systems and reimagine what an NHS career looks like. Here are three places we can start. 

1. Flexibility needs to be more than a buzzword 

First off, it’s time we put to bed the misconception that flexible working is not compatible with an NHS career. There’s no reason why it should be so difficult for NHS staff to take their annual leave at a time of their choosing, or to have a weekly schedule aligned to their personal needs.

As things stand, many staff are choosing to work for agencies to secure the flexibility they need and deserve. Whilst agencies play an important role in keeping hospitals safely staffed, an overreliance on them drives up costs for employers. This allocation of resources can have an unintended, knock-on impact on achieving optimal patient care. 

Huge leaps forward in workforce management technology have now made it possible for employers to safely give staff a say in their shift timings and annual leave dates, in a way that also prevents gaps in rotas and offers system-wide staffing visibility to managers. 

2. It’s time to move away from the linear career model 

A second misconception we must tackle is that an NHS career must follow a one-track, predetermined path. In fact, the latest generation medics are entering their careers with a very different understanding of what a ‘normal’ working life looks like. Many aspire to portfolio careers, combining their clinical work with entrepreneurship, research, study or teaching, and many expect to be able to work whilst maintaining other personal or professional commitments.  

To help this batch of clinicians build fulfilling careers, we need to create pathways for ambitious young workers to easily gain experience across different Trusts and departments, or to safely create flexibility in their schedules in order to pursue other career goals. This demands the support of technology, services and digital solutions to make cross-border movement seamless, prevent staffing clashes and eliminate the associated admin burdens.

3. Never underestimate the urgency of tech transformation 

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that flexible working is not the only domain where digital transformation is a prerequisite for essential change. To tackle the root causes of burnout and staff exit, we must see investment in an array of technologies and services which will support clinicians and their careers. These include everything from digital access to counsellors and mentors, to workflow streamlining and barrier-surpassing communication tools. These solutions should be embedded in a human-led, collaborative and supportive ongoing partnership between providers and NHS organisations. 

A healthier, happier working environment

With hindsight showing that pouring staff into a leaking pipeline is not a sustainable solution, it’s time to kick off this three-pronged transformation: making flexible working work, enabling uniquely modern career pathways, and investing in the right digital tech and service solutions. This is not a time for sticking-plaster remedies; it’s an opportunity to build a healthier, happier working environment for this record-breaking student cohort.