New BGS report exposes continuing shortage of geriatricians

22 February 2024

The British Geriatrics Society (BGS) has published a new report, ‘The state of the consultant geriatrician workforce’. The report analyses data from the most recent UK census of consultant physicians conducted by the Royal College of Physicians London on behalf of the Federation of the Royal Colleges of Physicians of the UK. The BGS brings the data on consultant geriatricians up to date and explores the potential impact on healthcare for older people.

The BGS has long advocated for a better staffed consultant geriatrician workforce and this new report highlights there is some way to go to meet the needs of the UK’s ageing population. Based on data collected in 2022, key findings indicate that there are still not enough geriatricians to meet the target of one consultant geriatrician for every 500 people aged 85 and over, which the BGS advocates. Compounding the challenge of the workforce shortfall, it is expected that just under 50 per cent of the current consultant geriatrician workforce will retire in the next ten years. 

Additionally, there is an uneven distribution of geriatricians across the country, with urban areas typically being better served. This is despite non-metropolitan areas being more likely to have ageing populations. The higher number of geriatricians in areas such as London has enabled the development and ongoing improvement of innovative services for older people including Front-Door Frailty, Peri-operative Care for Older Patients Undergoing Surgery (POPS) and proactive care in the community. These services could be replicated across the country with the availability of more geriatricians.

The new data highlights that most geriatricians experience a substantial level of rota gaps and vacancies in their department, echoing findings from the BGS’s recently published report, ‘The state of the older people’s healthcare workforce’. This appears to be a bigger problem than other specialties, with an impact on the level of care provided to patients. The census data shows that most consultant geriatricians felt they did not have control of their workload and just under a quarter reported they were at risk of burnout.

On a more positive note, for the first time since 2016, geriatric medicine is the biggest medical specialty. Despite workforce shortages and frustrations, most geriatricians are happy with their choice of specialty and feel valued by colleagues and patients. The BGS believes this sentiment needs to be captured in a recruitment drive and our upcoming #ChooseGeriatrics BGS campaign, aimed at the multidisciplinary team including doctors, nurses and allied health professionals, will make the case for the older people’s healthcare workforce. More information on this campaign will be publicised soon and the BGS would value support from its members.

Consultant geriatricians are just one part of the multidisciplinary team providing healthcare to older people and more data is required on the wider team to understand current and future workforce needs. The BGS will continue its efforts to collect and analyse this. In the meantime, prompt action is needed to address the shortfall of geriatricians and to address workforce conditions. The upcoming general election is a vital opportunity to consider the needs of the UK’s ageing population and the workforce supporting it. This is crucial so that older people, as the biggest users of the healthcare system, receive high-quality, personalised care when and where they need it.

Professor Adam Gordon, President of the British Geriatrics Society, said:

Our analysis of the latest RCP census of consultant physicians reinforces our calls for more geriatricians to meet the needs of the UK’s ageing population. In some parts of the country, there are severe shortages of those with the expertise to care for older people. By failing to address this, we are failing some of the most vulnerable people in society. We need to act with urgency to do something about these shortages. As we approach a general election, the BGS calls on all political parties to prioritise recruiting and training more geriatricians. Proper resourcing of the workforce enables older people to spend more years in better health and saves the NHS money in the long run.”

Dr Amit Arora, Vice President for Workforce at the British Geriatrics Society, said:

Geriatricians are experiencing unacceptable levels of rota gaps and vacancies, with most feeling a lack of control over their workload. It is vital that these workforce issues are addressed, and more is done to support the recruitment, retention, and development of those caring for older people. Despite these challenging issues, it is good to hear that most geriatricians are happy working in the specialty. There is a role for BGS to play in amplifying this sentiment and we are excited about our upcoming #ChooseGeriatrics campaign aimed at promoting the specialty to medical students and the wider multidisciplinary workforce.”

Professor Andrew Elder, President of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, said:

Our ageing population deserves our best care. Geriatricians are a key part of the multiprofessional teams that serve older people and their families - without adequate numbers of adequately trained doctors, patient care will suffer. However, year on year, the physician census data demonstrate the increasing risk to the safe provision of patient care, with an alarming and rising proportion of unfilled consultant posts and consultants approaching retirement. The BGS report reflects this reality, and highlights the need for workforce planning across the UK, with a focus on recruitment and retention, addressing the reasons for early retirement including pension rules, filling rota gaps, and valuing the workforce.”

Mr. Mike McKirdy, President of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, said:

The results of the RCP’s consultant physicians’ census reflect the intense pressure being felt by doctors across the UK as a result of widespread rota gaps in the medical workforce. We welcome BGS’s further analysis of the challenges for consultant geriatricians and their patients – the biggest users of the health and social care system. With 44% of consultant geriatricians expected to reach their intended retirement age in the next 10 years, it is vital that we continue to grow the workforce to ensure older people receive the high-quality, person-centred care they need and deserve.”