Age and the Anaesthetist: urgent action needed if an ageing healthcare workforce is to supply the healthcare needs of an ageing population

The single biggest challenge facing the NHS is to respond to the vastly increased demands of an ageing patient population and workforce, says an editorial accompanying a new report, Age and the Anaesthetist, published today by the Association of Anaesthetists of Great Britain and Ireland (AAGBI), and endorsed by the Royal College of Anaesthetists (RCoA). So important is the report’s message about the impact of an ageing workforce in an acute, high pressure specialty such as anaesthesia, on both NHS patients and the staff on whom they depend, that the Presidents of the AAGBI and the RCoA are urgently calling for a national response.  Two thirds of patients staying in hospital have contact with anaesthetists, specialist doctors who make up the largest group of hospital doctors (16% of NHS consultants). As well as anaesthesia for elective surgery, these doctors also deliver acute and emergency care to patients, particularly at night and weekends. They often have only seconds to make medical decisions which can mean the difference between life and death for their patients. 

The NHS is already under pressure from staff shortages and under-recruitment.  The report shows that an ageing workforce (changes to the NHS Scheme mean staff having to work until age 67 to receive a full pension) may worsen these problems, forecasting a 28% increase in the number of consultants aged over 50 years. Unless this issue is acknowledged, adjustments in working patterns needed by an ageing NHS workforce may result in a reduced service for patients.  A workforce crisis could occur much sooner than previous reports have predicted.

Over time, the mental dexterity, skills and reaction times of all doctors, including anaesthetists, diminish. Anaesthesia is a safety-critical specialty where a ‘routine case’ can change quickly to a life-threatening emergency and rapid action is required to manage the situation. Research evidence shows that vigilance and some aspects of cognitive function become more variable with age.  Older workers are more likely to have chronic health conditions, failing hearing and eyesight. The capacity to adapt to night work is reduced and tiredness can further worsen older workers’ performance.  Consultants aged 35 and 65 have different and varying experience, and mental and physical strengths, which all affect their ability to cope with longer working hours, on-call, or shift work. Job and career plans for anaesthetists must take account of these differences, particularly around the 24/7 emergency service they provide already, and Government plans to further expand ‘seven day services’. 

This June’s RCoAs’ Workforce Census indicated insufficient new consultants joining the NHS anaesthetic workforce to meet the future patient demand predicated by the Centre for Workforce Intelligence. Unless this is addressed the RCoA estimate that by 2033 there could be a shortfall of 33% in the consultant numbers required to maintain expected levels of safe and effective healthcare.  The NHS will need to retain older workers to have sufficient staff to meet ever-increasing demands. The AAGBI report calls for a review of the demands on this older workforce so that they can continue to remain safe and productive in the later stages of their careers, and outlines how working patterns should be designed and adapted to meet the needs of older workers.

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Notes to Editors

  1. For further information and to arrange interview opportunities with the AAGBI, please contact Stephanie Addington, AAGBI Marketing and Communications Manager +44 (0)20 7631 8854 or
  2. For further informtion and to arrange interview opportunities with the RCoA, please contact Gavin Dallas, RCoA Communications Manager +44 (0)20 7092 1696 or RCoA out of hours mobile: +44 (0) 7711767377.


Download the press release as a PDF
To download the executive summary and editorial of Age and the Anaesthetist visit:

To download Age and the Anaesthetist report in full visit

Association of Anaesthetist of Great Britain and Ireland (AAGBI)
The AAGBI is the professional membership organisation for over 11,000 anaesthetists in the UK and Ireland. AAGBI promotes patient care and safety, and advances anaesthesia through education, publications, research and international work, as well as the professional aspects of the specialty. The AAGBI’s motto in somno securitas (safe in sleep) encapsulates the major focus of the AAGBI: safety in anaesthesia.

Royal College of Anaesthetists
Anaesthesia is the largest single hospital specialty in the NHS. The Royal College of Anaesthetists is the professional body responsible for the specialty throughout the UK, and it ensures the quality of patient care through the maintenance of standards in anaesthesia, critical care and pain medicine.

The full RCoA Medical Workforce Census Report 2015 is available online at

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