The number of consultants taking voluntary early retirement has jumped 72% in one year - with dissatisfaction with the NHS largely to blame, according to doctors' leaders.
Data from the NHS Business Services Authority's pensions division shows the number of consultant voluntary retirements before the age of 60 has risen from 98 in 2010 to 169 in 2011.
It is the first time in the five years of data collection that the figure has exceeded 100. More than one in 10 (14%) of those consultants who retired in 2011 opted for voluntary early retirement - double the proportion in 2006 (7%).
Dr Ian Wilson, deputy chairman of the British Medical Association's central consultants and specialists committee, said there was growing dissatisfaction among consultants with changes in the NHS. These included increasingly long hours and a greater intensity of work (partly caused by the fact that junior doctors are now legally restricted to a 48-hour working week), changes to NHS pensions and the Government's reforms of the NHS.
"Anecdotally, doctors are telling us all the time that if they could retire they would retire, whereas in the past, doctors tended to want to carry on for as long as they were able to. People are feeling disempowered by NHS structures and NHS functioning, and there's an attraction for people to retire from the rat race," he said.
Planned changes to public sector pensions, such as the end of final salary pensions and people being told to pay in more, are driving consultants to take retirement now, Dr Wilson said. "There is absolutely no doubt that very many people are unhappy with the way things have been heading with pensions and have taken the opportunity to retire as soon as they possibly can."
The normal retirement age for people with an NHS pension is 65 but is set to rise to 68 under Government plans. At present, members can choose to take voluntary early retirement from the age of 55.
The report, by BMJ Careers, found that in the 12 months to March this year, 1,211 consultants received a pension award on grounds of age, ill health, redundancy or voluntary early retirement, up 30% from 937 in 2010. Some of this rise was due to a 4.5% annual rise in the number of consultants working in the NHS.
A Department of Health spokeswoman said: "There could be any number of personal reasons involved in a consultant's decision to retire - it would be impossible to put it down to any specific factor.
"The independent NHS Future Forum confirmed there is widespread support for the principles of our modernisation plans and we continue to work with the Department for Business on how the Working Time Directive might be revised to give the NHS the flexibility it needs. The Government's revised offer on pensions would protect members who are retiring in the next 10 years. The NHS pension will remain one of the very best available, providing a guaranteed pension level for all employees."