'Night cover is almost always short-staffed. It’s terrifying': doctors on rota gaps

Sarah Marsh and Guardian readers
‘We often have to cancel our emergency clinic because of a lack of staff’, a doctor has told the Guardian. Photograph: Lynne Cameron/PA

The Guardian has discovered that dozens of hospitals are struggling to recruit doctors to fill gaps in their rota. They are sending out urgent emails and text messages, often hours before a shift needs covering, asking for medics to come in. They are also offering increased hourly rates – of up to £95 an hour – in an attempt to encourage staff to cover.

But, despite this, doctors say many shifts are going unfilled, putting patient safety at risk. Doctors are being spread too thinly, they say, often having to leave other departments to offer help where its needed. They are also missing out on training due to staff shortages and being asked to work long hours back to back as a result.

We heard from dozens of NHS doctors about this. Here are a selection of responses.

Michael, a trainee surgeon: ‘We often have to cancel our emergency clinic because of a lack of staff’

We’ve had a rota gap for well over half a year now in my department. It has a knock-on effect. First, it means that my colleagues and I are constantly asked to cover extra 12-hour on-call shifts, despite already working long hours. Second, it affects services. We often have to cancel our emergency clinic because of lack of staff. But most importantly as a trainee surgeon in the past, I have not been able to attend theatre sessions to get training. This is worrying because when I am asked to perform certain life-saving procedure I may not be confident doing them on my own.

All junior doctors needs training to progress. When there are long-term rota gaps, this falls by the wayside and covering the services become the priority. Without adequate training, the service we provide will inevitably get worse as years go on.

It’s terrifying: you’re the most junior doctor in the hospital and you’re responsible for so many people

Brian

Jack, A&E locum: ‘One hospital had just two doctors for their A&E department – they called an emergency meeting’

I am working as a junior doctor in A&E. Since the tax rule changes (known as IR35) the gaps in A&E rotas in hospitals in the Midlands have got bigger. They were present before but not as visible.

One hospital I was in had only two doctors for a large A&E department overnight. They had to call emergency meetings and take doctors from other areas of the hospital. It meant patients needing treatment had to wait longer. Doctors stayed on for hours to try to bridge the gap. I stayed for as long as I could but in the end I was so tired I wasn’t safe. On the drive home I rolled the windows down and played music loudly just to try and stay on the road.

I work in three hospitals across the Midlands and the majority of the time there is not a full rota of doctors. When I arrive in the morning for handover, I have been told someone needs to go home and come back for the night shift as there isn’t enough cover. One consultant who was on call for 72 hours was in the hospital for the majority of that time trying to see patients and find more staff. A&E is the worst hit. This is because it has the lowest percentage of filled posts in training schemes and is most heavily reliant on locums. Its training schemes are underfilled because it has difficult hours, difficult time pressures, and it is one of only two ways into the NHS system. The GPs close, but the emergency department never closes so it’s always on the frontline.

Brian, a foundation doctor: ‘It’s terrifying when staffing gaps leave you responsible for loads of people’

Night cover is almost permanently short-staffed. It’s terrifying: you’re the most junior doctor in the hospital and you’re responsible for so many people. I am also seeing the effects on the more senior members of the team. They are sometimes expected to be in two or three places at once (somehow simultaneously covering the ward and clinic). I don’t understand how the problem seems to be taken so lightly. It’s a threat to patient safety.

Tensions run high as ridiculous last-minute rota changes result in people getting angry that a staff member they were planning on using has now been seconded elsewhere. The government capped rates for locums, the doctors who cover when staff members are ill or on holiday. Given that we sometimes already do 70-hour weeks (yes, that’s legal too somehow) our free time is very precious. The extra work is heavy enough as it’s short staffed, so the pain and risk just isn’t worth what we’re being offered.

Mandy, middle grade doctor: ‘Remaining staff take up the slack – teaching falls away and morale drops as a result’

Every rota has rota gaps. Obstetrics and gynaecology requires seven registrars; we have 1.8 doctors at our hospital. In intensive care, they are at least six registrars short. Every day we receive messages requesting staff to work extra shifts. Today working on renal the issue wasn’t a rota gap with doctors but with nurses: patients who needed dialysis couldn’t receive it due to not enough nurses to care for them on it.

The issue is the remaining staff take up the slack and go above and beyond every day to ensure patients remain safe. This makes our lives fairly miserable: teaching falls away, morale drops and tensions rise.

‘Rota gaps are ubiquitous, a daily occurrence. As a junior doctor you become desensitised to them.’ Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA

Al, a core medical trainee: ‘Not a day goes by where we don’t get emailed about a need for cover’

Rota gaps are ubiquitous, a daily occurrence. As a junior doctor, you become desensitised to them, which is a scary thing to say. Not a day goes by where we don’t get emailed about a need for cover. Sometimes phone calls are made to all the employed staff asking of they can work an evening shift or a weekend shift.

You become desensitised to gaps in the rota, which is a scary thing to say

Al

If this fails, then the vacancy is put out to the preferred locum agency dealing with the hospital who then have thousands of doctors at hand. Often these medics have not worked at the hospital before and although they agree to step in, they are nowhere near as efficient or diligent as the staff doctors.

My trust are also employing long-term locums to fill these gaps in the rota. This a positive step as these doctors become well acquainted with the hospital policies and procedures

Iman, consultant physician: ‘Highly-skilled surgeons are sometimes pulled out of theatre’

I have been given the thankless task of coordinating the junior doctor rota, a role which no one wants, but is almost forced on you. The reason people are reluctant to take it on is the almost daily severe shortage of staff which means that you are firefighting all the time.

I have rota gaps more often than not. The number of junior doctors allocated to the hospital by deanery is less than what we are supposed to have. We try to cover the rest by recruiting locums, which is often unsuccessful partly due to locum pay caps.

The remaining juniors are often under a lot of stress due to manpower shortages and consequently the sickness rates are high. On several occasions some of the wards have no juniors at all, which then requires senior staff to act down. This is a waste of resources as it means a highly-skilled surgeons or physicians are pulled out of the operating theatre or clinic to do these jobs.

On several occasions some of the wards have no juniors at all, which then requires senior staff to act down.

Iman

It’s hugely concerning. I have raised these repeatedly with the trust board, but they are powerless to do anything. We do not have enough junior doctors full stop. Deanery cannot recruit enough in specialities such as medicine and A&E due to onerous on-calls. The 1% pay caps have eroded pay and the imposition of contract has resulted in many juniors leaving the country, depleting the pool further.

Tom, general surgery registrar: ‘Increasing rota gaps is one of the factors driving doctors out of the profession’

Most hospital doctors are extremely worried about the impact of rota gaps on patient care. Clearly, having doctors who have stayed on for up to an additional 12 hours beyond a normal 12-hour shift means they are far too tired to make reliable clinical decisions, especially for the sickest emergency patients. Beyond fatigue, the routine reassignment of doctors from their ward duties to the emergency department leaves vast numbers of patients with too few doctors to look after them. It is often the most junior doctors who are left caring for large numbers of vulnerable post-operative and/or elderly patients without quick recourse to or support from more experienced colleagues.

In the 10 years since I qualified, I have seen nothing but a relentless increase in the demands put upon hospital staff. Increasing rota gaps have compounded the pressure on staff and is one of the factors driving doctors out of the profession and into mental health problems.

  • All names have been changed.
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