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Why the Talk of a UK Doctor Exodus May Be Overblown

Making Care Better 13/08/23 Yanique Barnett-Brown

The claim is made that the NHS is experiencing a significant departure of doctors. This argument is used to justify demands for higher pay during ongoing strike actions.

As discussions surrounding the state of the NHS and the potential exodus of doctors continue to make headlines, it's important to take a closer look at the data and assess the situation objectively. While concerns have been raised about doctors leaving the NHS in greater numbers, an analysis of available information suggests that the situation may not be as dire as initially portrayed. In this article, we will examine the trends and figures surrounding doctor migration, exploring factors such as the proportion of doctors leaving the NHS, the rise in junior doctors taking breaks, and the appeal of working abroad, particularly in countries like Australia. By providing a comprehensive overview of the current landscape, we aim to shed light on the complexity of the issue and dispel any premature claims of a UK doctor exodus.

The Proportion of Doctors Leaving the NHS

One of the key arguments put forward to support the notion of a doctor exodus is the overall proportion of medical professionals leaving the NHS. However, an analysis of data from NHS Digital in England over the past decade reveals that the proportion of doctors leaving the NHS has remained relatively constant at around 14-15%. This suggests that there has not been a significant increase in doctors leaving the system.

Moreover, it is important to consider the influx of new joiners into the NHS, which has led to a rise in the total number of doctors in the system. While certain individuals may choose to leave the NHS for various reasons, the overall impact on the healthcare workforce may not be as severe as some claim.

The Case of Junior Doctors

When examining the situation of junior doctors specifically, who often receive lower rates of pay and are considered more disenchanted, it becomes evident that the majority do choose to stay within the profession. According to data from the General Medical Council (GMC), only 7% of junior doctors who completed their first two years of foundation training in 2016 had left the profession five years later.

However, there is a concerning trend regarding junior doctors taking breaks from their training. In 2012, two-thirds of junior doctors moved directly to the third year of their training pathway after completing their second year. However, by 2020, this figure had dropped to less than a third. While it is unclear where these doctors are going during their breaks, it is possible that they are seeking opportunities abroad or pursuing other career paths. The increasing number of junior doctors taking breaks warrants attention and further investigation.

Exploring the Appeal of Working Abroad

Working abroad remains an attractive option for many doctors seeking new opportunities and experiences. The best available data on the number of doctors moving abroad each year comes from the GMC database, which tracks applications for a Certificate of Good Standing, used by doctors to apply for work abroad.

Prior to the pandemic, there were consistently more than 6,000 certificates issued each year to doctors seeking work in other countries. While there was a temporary drop during the pandemic, the number rose to approximately 7,000 in 2022. Although more recent figures for 2023 indicate a potential increase, it is essential to consider whether this is a long-term trend or simply a rebound from the pandemic's impact.

The Full Picture: Doctors Coming and Going

While it is crucial to acknowledge the potential departure of doctors from the UK, it is equally important to recognise the influx of doctors from abroad. In the previous year, over 12,000 doctors trained overseas joined the medical register, while around 8,000 newly qualified UK doctors also joined. These figures highlight the dynamic nature of the healthcare workforce and the continuous movement of doctors between countries.

It is important to approach discussions surrounding a potential doctor exodus with nuance and a comprehensive understanding of the data. While there may be factors that contribute to doctors seeking opportunities abroad, the overall picture suggests a more complex situation than a mass exodus. By considering the proportion of doctors leaving the NHS, the trends among junior doctors, and the appeal of working abroad in popular destinations like Australia, we can better contextualise the issue and work towards sustainable solutions that prioritise the well-being of healthcare professionals.

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