Stark figures show impact of shortage of anaesthetists on patients awaiting surgery in the NHS

Published: 23/02/2022

A new report from the Royal College of Anaesthetists warns that more than eight million operations per year will be cancelled or delayed by 2040 unless anaesthetic workforce shortages are addressed.

The RCoA’s The Anaesthetic Workforce: UK State of the Nation Report, published today, paints a stark picture of cancelled operations due to a desperate shortage of anaesthetists. While the long-term view is one of eight million cancelled operations each year, the situation today is similarly bleak, with a weary workforce, burnout and staff sickness exacerbated by a 1,400 shortfall of anaesthetists.

Currently, there are six million people on NHS waiting lists. The report shows that without investment in training posts for anaesthetists the situation will only worsen.

Anaesthetists are vital to addressing a spiralling NHS backlog of people awaiting surgery for cancer, heart problems, orthopaedics, and other conditions, as most operations cannot take place without an anaesthetist. The RCoA is urging Government to accelerate addressing this gap in the workforce, starting with funding 100 anaesthetic training posts. The College estimates that even now roughly 1 million operations are unable to take place per year due to the current shortfall of 1,400 anaesthetic staff.

Anaesthetists working today are doing so under considerable pressure. Staffing shortages combined with huge surgical backlogs are already affecting wellbeing; recent research from the General Medical Council also highlights the direct relationship between workplace stress and quality of care for patients. Having more anaesthetic training places each year will start to relieve the pressure on the workforce, address the shortfall and help combat the backlog.

The RCoA’s report highlights that the UK has an ageing population and an associated increased demand for surgery which means, unless action is taken to boost numbers, the shortfall of anaesthetists could reach 11,000 by 2040. If this shortage occurs there will be 8.25 million operations unable to take place each year.

Dr Fiona Donald, President of the RCoA said:

The NHS is facing an anaesthetic workforce timebomb. We already have profound workforce shortages that are preventing huge numbers of operations from taking place – and unless urgent action is taken, the problem is going to worsen.

“We would welcome Government funding for additional anaesthetic training posts. One hundred additional posts per year would start to plug the gap and help get the UK back on a sound footing to be able to address the waiting list backlog. Without this investment, we foresee impacts to patient care and a further impact on the mental health of our current workforce – they need to be able to prioritise their own health and that of their families alongside the focus they already place on the health of patients and the public.”

Pauline Elliott, Chair of the RCoA Lay Committee said:

“Often patients waiting for significant operations don't realise that the surgery they need can't take place without an anaesthetist. Tackling workforce pressures effectively must be a priority or millions more people will suffer pain, discomfort, anxiety and restrictions on their lives while they wait for promised procedures.”