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A Day In The Life Of An NHS Doctor (My Personal Perspective)

A Day In The Life Of An NHS Doctor (My Personal Perspective)

Updated on: December 3, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

Every article is fact-checked by a medical professional. However, inaccuracies may still persist.

What makes a day in the life of an NHS doctor so interesting is that almost no two days are the same.

I’ve worked as a doctor for nearly 5 years now and can’t say I’ve ever had exactly the same things happen to me on two consecutive shifts!

Over my time as a doctor, I’ve worked in quite a few different departments and environments- both within a hospital and outside of it.

I wanted to use this article as an opportunity to give you a look at what a typical day in the life of an NHS doctor looks like, whether that be a junior doctor, GP or surgeon.

What Does A Doctor Do Day To Day?

The fact is, what a doctor does day to day depends massively on where they’re working and what they’re specialised in.

You’ve got heart surgeons, who will spend a lot of their time in the operating theatre of a hospital, GPs who often spend time visiting patients in their own homes if they’re too sick to get to the GP practice, and then there are specialist prehospital doctors who might work on an air ambulance being called out to emergencies.

In many ways, I think it’s what makes medicine such a great profession- you can almost mould it exactly to your interests.

If you love working with children you can become a paediatrician, if you’re after adventure then you can volunteer at a refugee camp helping to treat the residents.

Day in the life of a paediatrician

I’m going to describe typical days for three different types of doctor: a junior doctor working in hospital, a GP and a surgeon.

However, the specifics of a day working in medicine will always depend on where you’re working and who you’re seeing.

Day In The Life Of A Junior Doctor

A junior doctor is any doctor who hasn’t reached the top rung on the medical training ladder of ‘consultant.’

Consultants often lead a team of junior doctors looking after patients in hospital. The consultant sets the plan then the junior doctors go about enacting the plan.

I worked as a junior doctor for 2 years at Derriford Hospital in Plymouth. Over that time, a typical day for me would look like this:

0645: Wake up, have breakfast and get ready for work.

0720: Leave for work and cycle to the hospital.

0750: Arrive at the hospital and head up to the ward I was working on.

0800: Ward round starts. The ward round is where the medical team generally goes around the ward and sees every single patient. The ward round is done with a senior doctor (consultant or registrar) who sets the plan for the patient for the day.

This might include things like getting some blood tests done, ordering an x-ray or writing a discharge letter so that the patient can be sent home.

It’s the junior doctor’s job to write down all the jobs for each of the different patients you see on the ward round so that you can come back and do them later in the day.

1100: Ward round finishes. After the team has seen and come up with a plan for every patient under their care, the ward round is finished. This was normally a perfect opportunity to sit down with a coffee and discuss what the most important jobs of the day were.

After the ward round, the senior doctor would generally leave the ward to work elsewhere in the hospital (either in clinic or operating theatre). You can always phone them for advice, but from this point the junior doctors are generally in charge of the ward.

1130: Start with the ward round jobs. It’s only after the ward round has finished that you can actually start with the jobs that need doing for the day. The ward round each morning generates the jobs and then the rest of the day is spent doing them.

You always want to start with the most urgent jobs first. This might be something like writing a discharge letter for a patient (a sort of summary of what’s happened to them while in hospital) so that a patient is able to be discharged.

Equally, if the ward round identified any patients who were particularly sick then you’d deal with them first.

1300: I’d normally head to the doctor’s mess for a bit of lunch at about 1pm. The doctor’s mess is essentially like a staff room for the doctors in a hospital. The one in Plymouth had a TV, kitchen and pool table. It’s where you could go to eat, chill out or have an informal work meeting.

1345: After lunch, you’d continue with the jobs from the ward round that you hadn’t got round to yet. In the afternoon, you’d often get results from any blood tests you’d done in the morning start to come back.

If they returned normal then there normally wasn’t anything that needed to be done, but if blood tests or x-rays came back and were abnormal then it would generate more things that needed to be done.

1500: Over the course of the day, you’d frequently be called to review a patient who the nurses were concerned about. This could be because they were spiking a fever, were in significant pain or just seemed a bit ‘off.’

To review a patient you’d read over their notes, have a chat with them and examine them. If you thoughts there was an infection brewing you could prescribe some antibiotics or if they were simply in pain then you could prescribe some stronger painkillers.

1700: 5 o’clock marked the time for handover to the evening team. In the evening and at night the hospital is still staffed with doctors but runs more on a skeleton staff.

Generally, anything that can wait till the daytime should be done in the day when there are more doctors about. When handing over, you’d highlight any particularly sick patients to the evening team or any outstanding jobs that still needed doing and couldn’t wait till tomorrow.

1730: After handing over and getting changed for the cycle back, it would normally be about five-thirty that I left the hospital.

1800: Back home for dinner, possibly gym and then bed!

Day In The Life Of A GP

A GP is a doctor who specialised as a ‘General Practitioner.’ They’re generalists, meaning they know a little bit about everything rather than just being specialised in diseases of the lungs for example.

A GP is the type of doctor you’ll see if you ‘go to the doctors’ at a GP practice. Instead of working in a hospital, they work in the community- meaning they work out of GP practices all across the country.

After working at Derriford Hospital for 2 years, I’ve spent the last couple of years working out of GP practices. Although I’m not yet a fully qualified GP myself, I’ve been working GPs and have been sticking to a pretty similar routine.

Each GP practice does things slightly differently, but this is a general day in the life of an NHS GP:

0645: Wake up, have breakfast and get ready for work.

0720: Leave for work and drive to the GP practice.

0750: Arrive at work and get set up to see the first patient.

0800: First patient of the day. Depending on the doctor, a GP’s slots may be set out as 10 or 15-minute appointments.

As I’m still in training, I started out with half an hour appointments- I need a bit more time to see the patient and possibly discuss them with one of the fully-qualified GPs.

1100: Morning coffee break. The practice I work in has an informal coffee break every morning at 1100. This is a great opportunity to catch up with your colleagues and potentially discuss any patients you weren’t sure about from the morning.

Medical team meeting over coffee

By 1100, with 10-minute appointment slots an NHS GP could already have seen 18 patients! Every now and again a GP may need to block out a slot to catch up on some of the paperwork patients generate if they need a referral or some blood tests ordering.

1300: Lunchtime. A GP’s lunch break can be another opportunity to catch up on a bit of the morning’s admin if it’s been a busy day but I think it is also important to get away from your desk for a bit.

Compared to working in a team in a hospital, the life of a GP can be a bit isolating- it’s just you in your office seeing patients one after another. GPs at the best practices I’ve worked at have had lunch together in a staff room for a bit of socialisation and relaxation.

1400: Either afternoon clinic or GPs often conduct home visits in the afternoon. A GP may visit a patient in their home if they’re too unwell to get to the GP practice or are in their last days of life and are choosing to die at home.

As a GP, you drive to their house and conduct a normal consultation but just not at the GP practice. If a patient is in their last days of life, you would make sure they’re comfortable, have enough painkillers and haven’t developed any distressing symptoms.

If conducting an afternoon clinic, it’s much the same as the morning. Short appointment slots for seeing the maximum number of patients possible.

1800: The last patient of the day should be finished up by 1800. Often, you’d have a bit of paperwork that you need to catch up on from the day’s work so it might mean staying for half an hour to get it sorted.

1830: Leave work. Anything that’s still outstanding but that isn’t urgent can wait till tomorrow. On the NHS computer systems, it’s pretty easy to set yourself a reminder of what needs doing for what patient.

1900: Home for dinner, possibly head to the gym and then bed.

As you can see, a day in the life of an NHS GP can be pretty full-on. With a full day of appointments booked, an NHS GP could see, examine and treat up to approximately 50 patients!

For this reason, a lot of GPs do choose to work a bit less than full-time. Monday to Friday of not getting back till 7pm with days chock full of patients can take its toll. Even with this less-than-full-time work, GPs can still make a good living.

One of the great things about general practice as a specialty is that you can have the flexibility to take a day a week to volunteer with the ambulance service, help with childcare or just have an extra day off.

Day In The Life Of A Surgeon

Although I’m not a surgeon myself, a lot of my time working as a junior doctor was spent working in surgical teams.

I would be in a team of doctors, led by a surgeon, looking after surgical patients in hospital. Working alongside a number of different surgeons, I got a pretty good insight into what their average day looked like:

0800: Ward round. As a consultant surgeon, you’d lead the ward round of all the surgical patients under your care. When patients come into hospital for an operation, they’re often in for at least a few days either side of the procedure if it’s a big one.

Before a patient has their operation they need to have all the correct blood tests and scans sorted so that they’re ready for theatre. After the operation, a patient may recover for a few days in hospital and so the ward round is a chance to check up on how they’re doing.

0930: A consultant surgeon may have to break away from the ward round early in order to head to theatres to operate. The rest of the ward round can be left in the hands of a registrar- the next most senior doctor on the team.

1100: First theatre case done. How long an operation takes really depends on what’s being done. A short case, such as draining an abscess could take less than 15 minutes. Alternatively, a complicated procedure such as transplant surgery could easily take all day.

1330: A bit of lunch after finishing the morning’s operating list. Unfortunately, if a surgical case overruns it just eats into your lunch break.

1400: Afternoon clinic. Hospital clinics are where a surgeon can review patients who aren’t currently admitted to the hospital. For example, a GP may refer a patient to a surgeon’s clinic so that a surgeon can review them and decide if surgery would be appropriate for their condition.

Equally, after having an operation and being discharged from the hospital, a surgeon may review a patient in clinic at the 6-week point to check that they’re still recovering as expected.

A hospital clinic works in a similar fashion to GP practices- the surgeon takes patients from a waiting room and sees them individually in their clinic room.

1700: Clinic finished. Towards the end of the day, a surgeon may head back up to the ward to check that there weren’t any major dramas on the ward over the course of the afternoon. They may get a brief update from one of the junior doctors working on the ward and can give advice as required.

1730: Home.

Day In The Life FAQs

What are the typical hours a doctor works in the UK?

The typical hours for a doctor working in the UK are 8am to 5.30pm. The exact working hours of a doctor will depend on where they’re working and in which department. Medical specialties typically start at 9am whereas surgical specialties start at 8am. 

How many days off do doctors get?

Working for the NHS, a doctor will typically get 30-40 days of annual leave per year. How many days off a doctor gets depends on how long they’ve been working in the NHS and what their specific job plan is. Doctors are generally able to work part-time if desired.

How long are doctors’ breaks?

Doctors’ breaks are typically 30-45 minutes long. As opposed to other healthcare professionals such as nurses, doctors typically don’t have defined break periods in their day. Rather, a doctor will take a break for lunch or to rest when the day’s workload allows it.

Final Thoughts

If you’re thinking of applying to medical school, one of the best ways to see what doctors actually do is to shadow one on a work experience placement.

Getting to see first-hand what a doctor does is one of the best ways of seeing for yourself whether medicine might be for you.

In such a varied profession, there never really is a ‘typical’ day, but hopefully this article has now given you a better insight into the day in the life of NHS doctors.

About the author
After studying medicine at the University of Leicester, Dr Ollie now works as a junior doctor in London. His interests include medical education and expedition medicine, as well as having a strong belief in the importance of widening access to medicine.