Increasing numbers of doctors in England and Wales decided to retire early over the last 15 years rather than wait to claim their pension at retirement age, The BMJ reported .
The news article, written by the journal's UK editor, Tom Moberly, quoted experts who claimed that pay erosion and pensions tax had been significant factors behind the exodus.
Based on data from NHS Business Services obtained in response to a freedom of information request, The BMJ said that voluntary early retirement by GPs and hospital doctors had increased by an average of 9.3% year-on-year, rising from 376 in 2008 to 1424 in 2023. The number of doctors retiring at retirement age fell from 2030 to 1721 over the same period, the figures revealed.
More specifically, the number of hospital doctors retiring early rose from 178 in 2008 to 557 in 2023, whilst the number of GPs doing so rose from 198 to 867 over the same period.
The figures related to doctors who claimed their NHS pension in a specific pension year, and some could have returned to work in other health service roles after taking their pensions, the article pointed out.
The investigation found that overall, the total number of doctors retiring had risen by 35% over the past 15 years, from 2431 in 2008 to 3277 in 2023. Over the same period, the total number of doctors employed by the NHS in England and Wales had increased by 33%, from 141,000 in 2008 to 187,000 in 2023.
Burnout, Pay, and Pensions Tax
Dr Vishal Sharma, who chairs both the consultants committee and pensions committee at the British Medical Association (BMA), said that the figures "back up what the BMA has been saying for many years", and represented "the loss of expertise of our most senior doctors".
Dr Sharma said that "burnout caused by working in a chronically understaffed service and pay erosion" were likely to have been significant factors for early leavers.
The Royal College of GPs said its own survey findings suggested that as many as 22,000 GPs could leave the profession in the next 5 years unless there was urgent action to tackle workload and workforce pressures.
In a comment sent to Medscape News UK, the College's vice-chair, Dr Victoria Tzortziou-Brown, said: "These aren't just GPs approaching retirement age, but at all stages of their careers, often citing stress and burnout as reasons." The anticipated NHS workforce plan "should be a key opportunity for the Government to make clear how this situation can be turned around", she said.
Sarah Tennant, chair of the pension committee of the hospital doctors' union HCSA, told The BMJ that an "eye wateringly complex system" of pensions taxation had led many consultants and specialists to grow tired of "playing Russian roulette with tax" and had opted to leave the NHS rather than risk being faced with unexpected tax demands.
"Pensions tax has been a significant and increasing cause of early retirement among
senior doctors, and we fear it will remain so, due to continued uncertainty," she said. A clear indication was needed from politicians that they understood the problem, so that "shock bills" would become "a thing of the past".
In his spring Budget, the Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, announced he would increase the pensions annual tax-free allowance by 50% from £40,000 to £60,000 and abolish the lifetime allowance altogether .
Dr Sharma said those changes, although welcome, would have come too late for some who had already planned on retiring early. "It will be some time before we can properly evaluate the impact of the changes to the lifetime allowance – and there will still be doctors impacted by the tapered annual allowance, which has still not been meaningfully reformed," he commented.
NHS Workforce Plan This Week
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: "We have a record 133,000 doctors working in the NHS – over 5000 more than a year ago – and more than 1900 additional doctors in general practice compared to 2019.
"The Government has reformed the pension tax system alongside wider changes to the NHS Pension Scheme which will result in more experienced, senior staff choosing to remain in work for longer.
"We are hugely grateful to NHS staff who work tirelessly to provide care and we will publish a Long-Term Workforce Plan this week which will help recruit and retain more staff."