NHS anaesthetist shortage may lead to eight million cancelled operations a year

More than eight million operations a year could be cancelled or delayed if a shortage of NHS anaesthetists is not tackled, senior leaders have warned.

The Royal College of Anaesthetists (RCoA) said there is currently a UK-wide shortfall of 1,400 NHS consultant and specialty and associate specialist anaesthetists, which it estimates is leading to around a million operations a year not being able to take place.

But in a report published on Wednesday, the college said that an aging population and associated increased demand for surgery means that if no action is taken to boost numbers, the shortfall of anaesthetists could reach 11,300 by 2040.

This equates to an estimated 8.25 million operations that will be unable to take place due to lack of anaesthetic staff, it added.

RCoA president Dr Fiona Donald said: “The NHS is facing an anaesthetic workforce timebomb.

“We already have profound workforce shortages that are preventing huge numbers of operations from taking place – and unless urgent action is taken, the problem is going to worsen.”

According to the report, the projected gap of anaesthetists by 2040 will be 9,100 in England, 1,000 in Scotland, 800 in Wales and 400 in Northern Ireland.

The Anaesthetic Workforce: UK State of the Nation report warned that without addressing the workforce gap, any plans to tackle the NHS’s growing elective care backlog – currently at a record 6.1 million in England – were in “jeopardy”.

The RCoA is calling for the Government to fund 100 new higher specialty anaesthetic training places each year to start boosting numbers.

This would increase the intake up to around 600 a year, the college said, but well below the 1,000 applicants for higher specialist training in 2021.

Dr Donald said: “We would welcome Government funding for additional anaesthetic training posts.

“One hundred additional posts per year would start to plug the gap and help get the UK back on a sound footing to be able to address the waiting list backlog.

“Without this investment, we foresee impacts to patient care and a further impact on the mental health of our current workforce – they need to be able to prioritise their own health and that of their families alongside the focus they already place on the health of patients and the public.”

The report also said there needed to be a boost in medical training places from medical school places at university through to higher specialist training.

It said there also needed to be better communication around career progression and flexibility in job plans so anaesthetists can improve their work-life balance and stay in work “as long and as healthily” as possible.

Pauline Elliott, chair of the RCoA lay committee, said: “Often patients waiting for significant operations don’t realise that the surgery they need can’t take place without an anaesthetist.

“Tackling workforce pressures effectively must be a priority or millions more people will suffer pain, discomfort, anxiety and restrictions on their lives while they wait for promised procedures.”

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