Underpaid and overworked, GP supervisors are burnt out

4 minute read

Around 70% of GP trainers are experiencing symptoms of burnout … and that’s an improvement on last year.

The kids might be all right, but there’s something up with the GP supervisors – almost three-quarters say they’re exhausted and two-thirds say they’re disengaged.

According to results from a 2023 survey of 362 GP Supervisors Australia members, more than half of the current supervisor workforce – around 60% of whom have been supervising for 10 years or more – are looking to stop within the next five years.

Despite these alarming figures, GPSA director of research Associate Professor Samia Toukhsati told The Medical Republic that it wasn’t the worst shape that the workforce had ever been in.

In fact, the burnout markers of exhaustion and disengagement are down by six and four percentage points respectively compared to the 2022 results.

“It’s quite a remarkable and a certainly significant drop in exhaustion, so that’s something that we think’s really encouraging,” Professor Toukhsati said.

There are also signs to suggest disengagement is coming down year-on-year, albeit slowly, she said.

While there doesn’t appear to be one root cause of supervisor discontent, Professor Toukhsati said her research had indicated that working in a practice that aligned with a person’s values had a protective effect.

“People who felt like their values were being fulfilled in their general practice and in their supervision – where they felt like they were having a positive impact, making the world a better place and having a positive influence around others – they had lower levels of burnout,” the researcher said.

That’s where GP supervisor pay – or lack thereof – comes in.

“Part of that [fulfilment] is feeling recognised and valued in what you do,” Professor Toukhsati said.

“And part of that is in the way that supervision is recognised and rewarded.”

With funding to improve GP training on the wishlist of virtually every doctor advocacy body ahead of the May budget, the issue of supervisor pay hasn’t escaped notice.

GPs who supervise registrars are only remunerated for certain activities, like group meetings with registrars, professional development and time spent as a lecturer.

Although training practices do get a subsidy and teaching allowance, these are not necessarily passed on to supervisors.

Clinical supervision, as a task, is not funded.

“We’re working with the sector and up the chain to address those issues around time, recognition and reward,” Professor Toukhsati said.

“But one of the other ways that we’re addressing it is looking at recognising quality in what supervisors do.”

This has taken the form of the GP Clinical Learning Environment tool, an instrument that identifies the key ingredients of a quality training practice.

“We need to find ways to nurture [supervisors] and make sure that people can fulfil their values and the reasons they got into general practice and general practice training to begin with,” Professor Toukhsati said.

In a move that points toward a new era of harmony in the general practice training space, GPSA and its sister peak GP Registrars Australia have signed a joint Memorandum of Understanding ahead of this year’s update to the National Terms and Conditions for the Employment of Registrars.

Negotiations for updates to this agreement, which essentially functions as an award for registrars, have historically ended up with the two groups at loggerheads.

After a particularly bad round of negotiations in 2018, both peak bodies have sworn to work together to make it a collaborative process. This is the first time a formal MoU has been signed, though.

“Our ultimate strength as national peaks is our ability to represent the needs of our individual member cohorts, but nothing truly exists in isolation and few see this so clearly as the individuals we represent,” said GPSA chair Dr Srishti Dutta.

“This MoU throws a spotlight on the fact today’s GPRA members are the GPSA members of tomorrow, and the only way we will shape general practice into the specialty our future GPs are looking for is by working collaboratively toward that vision.”

The agreement was last reviewed in 2022, and the update is set to be ready in time for the first training semester of 2025.

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