One in five young doctors in training now works part-time, an increase of more than 50 per cent in just three years, official figures show.
Some health leaders today backed the move as a “positive step in the right direction” and said it offered doctors a better work-life balance.
But it also means that more staff would inevitably be needed to do the same amount of work.
This could hamper efforts to tackle the longest treatment waiting list ever created by the NHS.
Some 8,523 junior doctors were recorded as working “less than full-time” in 2019/2020, representing 15 per cent of the workforce.
It comes as increasing numbers of doctors are quitting due to worsening working conditions and low pay. Many are also retiring in their 50s, moving abroad or going to work in the private sector due to increased demand. Pictured are junior doctors and consultants on the picket line outside University College Hospital in London yesterday.
The backlog in England, for procedures such as hip and knee replacements, now stands at 7.6 million, official figures revealed last week. This means that approximately one in seven people nationwide are currently stuck in the system waiting for care. More than 380,000 patients have gone without treatment for a year, often in agony
In 2022/23, this figure increased to 13,312, equivalent to 20 per cent of the training workforce.
The rise has been attributed to changes made by Health Education England (HEE), which governs contracts for junior doctors, last year.
Until August 2022, doctors could only apply to work part-time in special circumstances.
Approved reasons included caring responsibilities, ill health or professional development.
However, the HEE expanded the eligibility criteria last year, allowing junior doctors to choose to work “less than full time” as a personal choice.
Announcing the move at the time, the body said it was “designed to improve retention, reduce attrition and improve the working lives of junior doctors by providing an opportunity to improve work-life balance”.
The decision was also backed by officials from the Department of Health, NHS employers, NHS England, the General Medical Council and the British Medical Association (BMA) Young Doctors Committee, who are currently co-ordinating the doctors’ strike.
Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, said The times today: ‘HEE changed the ability for doctors to apply for part-time work in August 2022 to allow more doctors to apply for any well-founded reason, whether for their well-being or personal choice.
“This is a positive step in the right direction, ensuring the NHS keeps up with the modern era and gives doctors more flexibility, helping to create that important work-life balance.”
He added: “It is logical then that it will be necessary to have more staff to do the same amount of work if more people decide to work part-time.” The long-term workforce plan offers the opportunity to recruit more doctors to address this issue.’
Meanwhile, Professor Sheona Macleod, medical director for NHS England medical reform, told MailOnline: “The NHS has done important work to listen to staff feedback and develop more flexible training approaches, to allow more doctors in training take on less than full time opportunities, including those who may be living with a disability or have significant caring responsibilities.
“By enabling medical careers to better suit each individual and supporting the wellbeing of doctors in training, this scheme has been designed to help attract more people to the profession and ensure a sustainable supply of NHS workforce to long term”.
But others warned that the rise in part-time work could hamper efforts to reduce record NHS waiting lists, leaving patients facing further delays in care.
Official figures published last week showed the list had soared again to a new record, with around 7.68 million patients in England – or one in seven people – in the queue in July for procedures such as hip replacements and knee.
However, others point to the tension between balancing individual wishes for shorter working weeks with the provision of services, as the NHS seeks to reduce a record waiting list of 7.7 million people.
This includes almost 390,000 patients who have waited at least a year for treatment, often in pain.
Under the NHS workforce plan published earlier this year in June, ministers pledged to double training places in medical schools to 15,000 by 2031, with new schools and more places in areas with the greatest shortages.
The plan has committed to increasing the permanent NHS workforce by almost one million by 2036/2037. It is expected to see an increase from 1.4 million to between 2.2 and 2.3 million.
The number of training places in medical schools will double by 2031/32, bringing the total number of places to 15,000. GP training places in England for junior doctors will also increase by 50 per cent to 6,000, the NHS staffing plan has promised. Pharmacist training will also increase by almost 50 percent to around 5,000 places by 2031/32. Meanwhile, training in clinical psychology and child and adolescent psychotherapy will also be expanded, with places increasing by more than a quarter to 1,300 in 2031.
It comes as increasing numbers of doctors are quitting due to worsening working conditions and low pay.
Many are also retiring in their 50s, moving abroad or going to work in the private sector due to increased demand.
The latest figures show that the UK has 3.2 doctors per 1,000 people, ranking 25th among Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.
However, this figure also represents the lowest number of doctors per capita among European OECD countries, the researchers note.
Earlier this month, a study of 10,486 junior doctors from the UK’s 44 medical schools also found that one in three plan to emigrate to practice medicine, leaving for countries such as Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada.
Around 60 per cent of respondents were dissatisfied or not at all satisfied with the prospect of working in the NHS.
NHS Digital data on vacancies shows 7.2 per cent of medical roles were vacant in June.
Under the NHS workforce plan published in June, ministers committed to increasing the health service’s permanent workforce by almost one million by 2036/2037.
This will include between 60,000 and 74,000 more doctors by 2036/37, adding to the 142,000 working for the health service in June.
Other measures in the plan also include doubling training places in medical schools to 15,000 by 2031, with new schools and more places in areas with the greatest shortages.
Dr Billy Palmer, senior fellow at the Nuffield Trust, said today: “Making training more accessible within the NHS is vital if the UK hopes to increase the number of doctors and other healthcare workers trained at home, keep apprentices within the NHS and help reduce our reliance on foreign workers.
“Part-time training is becoming an increasingly popular option for doctors.”
He added: “The option to work part-time and flexibly has benefits in reducing stress and burnout, as well as making training more accessible for those with parenting and caring responsibilities.”