Lecture by Age and the Anaesthetist working party Chair at Annual Congress 2016 today reinforces AAGBI/RCoA call for political parties to address the increasing demands of an ageing healthcare workforce

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 to be presented today at the AAGBI’s Annual Congress meeting in Birmingham, by the report’s working party Chair, Professor Peter Hutton. Published 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.    AAGBI - For further information and to arrange interview opportunities please contact Stephanie Addington, Marketing and Communications Manager
 +44 (0) 20 7631 8854 or stephanieaddington@aagbi.org.

2.    Annual Congress 2016 is the AAGBI’s annual meeting for anaesthetists in the UK, Ireland and internationally. This year’s Annual Congress takes place 14-16 September at the ICC in Birmingham. Prof Peter Hutton will be a guest speaker at the Annual Congress on Wednesday 14 September at 15:50 (“Working and Ageing”). www.annualcongress.org

3.    RCoA – For further information and to arrange interview opportunities please contact Gavin Dallas +44 (0) 20 7092 1696 or email gdallas@rcoa.ac.uk. RCoA out of hours mobile +44 (0) 7711 767377.

4. To download the executive summary and editorial of Age and the Anaesthetist visit

5. To download Age and the Anaesthetist report in full visit www.aagbi.org/AgeandtheAnaesthetist

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