AS a family doctor for nearly 26 years, Dr Max Hickman loved helping his patients.

But, having opted for early retirement aged 56, Dr Hickman is among an increasing number of GPs who say the stresses of the job have now become too much.

NHS figures show the numbers of retiring GPs have risen threefold over the last decade.

Coupled with population rises and struggles to recruit GPs, concerns are mounting.

Doctor Max Hickman is getting away from it all with a well deserved break.

Last month the 56-year-old took early retirement because the stresses of the job he loved were impacting on his health.

Dr Hickman candidly admitted it was a “relief” to no longer be a GP partner at Ambrose Avenue surgery in Colchester, despite working there for nearly 26 years.

The Rowhedge dad-of-two quashed presumptions he could be taking a home a “big fat pension” and said he felt he had to “just get out”.

But his case highlights an issue in the NHS whereby GPs are retiring yet newly qualified doctors are not coming through the system quickly enough.

In many surgeries this has resulted in patients struggling to get GP appointments and some surgeries are even refusing to take more people on their books.

Dr Hickman said: “I had a heart attack five years ago.

“I have had a pretty tough few years with my health and trying to carry on as a GP.

“You cannot say one has caused the other but certainly I have felt the stress of being a GP.”

He added many of his colleagues shared his view the demands of the job were now too great.

He said: “It is a relief not to be a GP partner as it is incredibly stressful.

“It is not just about seeing patients and the increasing pressure on the NHS, and reduced money going into the NHS, we are also here to run a business.

“A lot of people don’t understand that we are running a business and all the staff are your staff, they are employed by you.”

Dr Hickman, who is also president of the Colchester Medical Society, said pressures had notably increased in the past ten years.

He said: “It was always hard work but there were different pressures when we started.

“The bureaucracy was probably a lot less in those days and it was more about dedicated patient contact.

“Now it is that plus all the other things we have to do as a GP in terms of running a business, what the Government expects you to do, meeting various targets. We get performance-related pay.”

The system includes for GPs to try to control patients’ blood pressure, diabetes and help with their asthma, as examples.

He said: “I spent a lot of my time just looking at a computer without seeing patients, trying to make sure I have covered all the things that need to be covered.

“One watches ‘GPs Behind Closed Doors’ on the television and it implies doctors walk in in the morning, see patients and go home and forget about it. It is not like that at all.

“I love patient contact, I love being a family doctor.

“There are patients for whom I will have been their doctor for many, many years – babies born when I first started and I see them pregnant now and I love all that.

“The patient contact and rewards we get from seeing patients are enormous. It has been a great privilege.

“But in the end it was getting to my health too much and in the end I decided I just couldn’t carry on. I just knew I had to get out.”

Dr Hickman said typical working days could last 11 hours and the surgery now has about 16,000 patients on its books.

Extra pressures are expected with the many more hundreds of homes being built at Stanway.

He resisted seeing patients at weekends and evenings - another move pushed by the NHS to cut patient waiting lists – and tried to stick to seeing them for ten minutes at a time where suitable.

He was one of seven GPs at the surgery.

Dr Hickman still intends to continue with some locum work and to become more involved again in the community cardiology service he set up with a colleague.

He said: “What’s really sad is I have tremendous experience and we are losing so many of these doctors and nobody comes to us and says: ‘Why are you leaving? How can we make things better?

“The reason is everybody is chasing their tails, everybody is so busy to actually ask that question.

“I am not leaving, for instance, because I have got a big fat pension; I felt I had to.

“The NHS is a tremendous thing but it doesn’t really look after the staff too.

“I have seen some awful things in my career but there has been no support for it.”