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Cutting a Lifeline: Why CBS Opposes Mental Health Programme Cuts

The news that the NHS has delayed its plans to cut its NHS Practitioner Health Programme is welcome, but the fight is far from over. The very idea that mental health support is deemed disposable by NHS England puts surgeon wellbeing firmly into the danger zone, with the cutting of this support the removal of a (literal) lifeline.

Previous blogs have explored the facts around surgeons and burnout: findings include that 92% of trusts had concerns about staff wellbeing following the pandemic. As far back as 2018, the BMJ found that 40% of NHS hospital consultants were scoring worryingly high for emotional exhaustion, depressive symptoms and anxiety symptoms; and in 2020, one-third of doctors who responded to a BMJ survey were described as burned out. Although surgeons are resilient, they are also notoriously unlikely to seek help for mental health problems:

combine this with a lack of support when they do so and you have a potentially fatal combination.  As CBS’s clinical psychologist in residence, Dr. Richard Sherry, who specialises in high-pressure environments, says:

“What surgeons do directly impacts the health outcome of their patients, the patients’ families, their staff, and the functioning and reputation of their hospital. By virtue of these factors, it is a very high stress occupation, and surgeons are in a vulnerable position, psychologically. Consider the age-old oxygen mask aeroplane analogy: if you don’t keep yourself alive, how are you going to help others?”

The positive impact of the NHS Practitioner Health Programme is proven - 90% of medical professionals using the service reach full recovery, and 75% of those not in work at the time of seeking support return after treatment. With the NHS experiencing issues around staff retention, and work stress cited as a primary factor for leaving, the benefits of mental health support surely outweigh any perceived budgetary limitations.

In an open letter from NHS staff to the health secretary and CEO of NHS England, Dr. Rachel Clarke and Consultant Anaesthetist Dr. Natalie Silvey highlighted the dangers facing surgeons if these cuts go ahead. They rightly point out that the cost of the NHS Practitioner Programme equates to just £59 per doctor per year, 0.007% of NHS England’s annual budget. The withdrawal of this service demonstrates how little the health and wellbeing of doctors matters. Every week, the NHS loses a nurse to suicide; every three weeks, it loses a doctor. What will that number look like if mental health support is cut?

To reiterate Dr. Sherry’s point, to cut corners with the care of our surgeons is akin to cutting corners with the care of that surgeon’s patients. If a doctor is unwell, they are unable to concentrate, unable to perform to the best of their ability, and therefore unable to carry out their work safely. The potential consequences could be devastating, both for the patient and the surgeon.

CBS President, Mark Henley, says:

“Cutting mental health support for practitioners is a false economy - the statistics speak for themselves. What sort of system removes something so fundamental to the wellbeing of its staff, particularly when those staff are already at risk of high levels of stress? We fully support the open letter written by Drs Clarke and Silvey, and call for the NHS to reconsider this flawed proposal.”

Read the open letter here.

CBS is committed to the physical and psychological wellbeing of its members and their families. CBS members have access to  a comprehensive Employee/Member Assistance Programme (EAP) through Health Assured, offering confidential counselling, legal support, bereavement assistance, medical guidance, and online Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), along with the Wisdom app and additional resources for a holistic approach to wellbeing.



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