Medical workforce

Demographic changes in the UK population mean that there is an increasing proportion of older patients with complex multisystem needs. There is therefore a growing need for generalist medical skills. Physicians such as geriatricians already have these skills, but other specialty physicians are increasingly utilising them as patients present more frequently with co-existing problems rather than a single specialty issue.


A total of 41% of consultant physicians currently contribute to general internal medicine (GIM). The greatest contribution is from geriatricians (19%), respiratory physicians (18%), gastroenterologists (16%), endocrinology and diabetes mellitus consultants (13%) and acute physicians (11%). There has been a trend of greater participation over recent years. To create a flexible workforce that can meet the needs of the ageing population, in future trainees will increasingly undergo training in both specialty and general internal medicine. Currently 59% of trainees are dual accrediting in GIM and a specialty.

Figure 1: Commitment to general internal medicine, 2015–16

Seven-day services

There are four main drivers for 7-day services: reducing mortality, increasing hospital efficiency, providing easier access to NHS services, and ensuring patients receive the same standard of care regardless of the day of the week.

Acute physicians may be involved in either general medical services and specialty-specific services, or both. The 2015–16 census demonstrated that 65% of all consultant physicians would support a 12 hour 7-day week acute service, with greater support from those already involved in this service. Regarding specialty services, overall there was support from 55%, although this was much higher in those whose specialty has a more acute component and already participates in weekend or out-of-hours work.

Figure 2: Consultants' on-call commitments, by specialty

Less-than-full-time working

Not surprisingly, there has been least support for 7-day services from those who already work less than full time. Currently 20% of the consultant population works less than full time. This represents 39% of female consultants and 7% of male consultants. The proportion of female consultants is growing: currently over 34% are female, but more than 50% of those under the age of 35 are female, with a polarisation of specialties without an out-of-hours commitment. Thus there is potentially a conflict between the needs of the population for increasing generalist skills out of hours, provided by a workforce with an increasing proportion who may be unable or reluctant to commit to this.

Figure 3: Number and gender divide of consultants and HSTs, by specialty

Non-medical professionals

There is increasing demand for healthcare, while the current budget leaves the number of physicians and trainees static. To help meet demand, other healthcare providers may become involved. Physicians associates (PAs) are a new healthcare professional who, although they are not doctors, work to the medical model, with the attitudes, skills and knowledge base to deliver holistic care and treatment within the general medical and/or general practice team under defined levels of supervision. PAs are dependent practitioners who work within agreed guidelines and predetermined levels of senior supervision (consultant, registrar or GP).

Rota gaps

Physicians are increasingly looking after inpatients within the hospital, particularly out of hours, and therefore any gaps in trainee rotas are of significance. The last consultant census (2016) revealed that overall 28% of consultants are frequently aware of gaps in trainees’ rotas, such that patient care is compromised. A further 51% reported that while there are gaps, a solution can be made so that care is not compromised.

Figure 4: Number of consultants aware of gaps in trainee rotas, by specialty

The situation is worst in those specialties contributing to the acute take. In 2016, LATs (locum appointments for training) were abolished in England, so that any trainee post not filled by an NTN (national training number) holder will be more difficult to fill, which is likely to exacerbate the problem. 13% of consultants are regularly asked to act down, 32% on a one-off basis. Again, this occurs more frequently in the acute specialties where 29% of consultants report that there has been a consultant vacancy in their department for longer than 6 months.

Physician roles

As well as being a competent clinician, a physician also needs to be a leader, researcher, teacher and trainer, involved in the management of the medical service and in training other professionals. Over a lifetime career the proportion of time spent in each of these roles will vary. The amount of time spent carrying out management, audit, research or training responsibilities usually, but not always, increases compared with clinical commitments. Within a department, roles may be distributed among several people but it is likely that every individual will undertake some activity in each area.

In the future, there are likely to be increasingly diverse demands and opportunities for consultants, with diverse working patterns. Over the course of an individual consultant’s career whole-time, less-than-full-time, 7-day working and out-of-hours commitments may all be undertaken in varying proportions. Within a specialty department, members will have different preferences at different stages, contributing to the workforce as a whole and over a lifetime career. There cannot be many professions that offer this much flexibility and variety of opportunity.

(Figures reproduced from: Focus on physicians: census of consultant physicians and higher specialty trainees 2015–16. London: RCP, 2016)