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Stepping off the treadmill

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Pathology services face serious staff shortages as a major survey of over 400 UK consultant medical microbiologists and virologists discloses that many plan to retire early because of increasing workload and low morale.

The questionnaire survey, endorsed by the Association of Clinical Pathologists, Royal College of Pathologists, and Association of Medical Microbiologists, identified 464 practising consultant medical microbiologists and virologists, 367 (79%) of whom responded.

The responses confirmed anecdotal evidence of increased workload and its effects. Over half of those responding planned to retire early, at or before age 60. A similar proportion was already working more than 48 hours a week or was on call 1:1 or 1:2 at weekends. Both situations were independently associated with impaired psychological health, and working 1:1 or 1:2 on call at weekends was also linked to low morale.

The respondents included 33 virologists and a minimum of 89 single handed practitioners. The majority (60%) worked in district general hospitals and the rest mostly in teaching hospitals. They were identified from the datasets of their professional bodies; by PHLS regional epidemiologists; and by key people in the health service regions.

Consultant medical microbiologists and virologists have experienced a greater workload, of increasing scope and complexity, particularly over the past five years, against an increase in their numbers of only 12.5 % during 1987-97 compared with 27-105% in other specialties.