NHS staffing crisis as one in 20 health professional posts remains unfilled

More than one in 20 posts in the NHS are being left unfilled official figures show as Trusts are forced to spend up to £150,000 to fill each job with agency workers.

The NHS Information Centre found that the number of job vacancies for hospital doctors, dentists, nurses and midwives rose for the first time in five years.

Staff retiring or leaving the sector and the impact of cuts to doctors’ hours are likely to have contributed to shortages across England. London is especially badly hit.

Doctors’ leaders have been heavily critical about the impact of preparing for the European Working Time Directive, which came into force on August 1st.

The directive, which has reduced the maximum working week for junior doctors and other staff by the equivalent of one working day — from 56 hours to 48 — means that a significant number of hospitals are relying on agency staff to plug gaps in their rotas.

As The Times reported last week, the College of Emergency Medicine said that pressure was greatest on “middle-grade” doctors with at least four years training, who would be typically asked to cover shifts in Accident and Emergency (A&E;) wards at evenings and weekends.

Trusts are spending tens of thousands of pounds to fill vacant posts with agencies charging between £90 to £95 an hour to provide a middle-grade doctor to staff units when a senior consultant is not present.

The health service spent more than £584 million on employing agency staff in 2007-08, the latest year for which full data is available.

The British Medical Association, the Royal College of Surgeons and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health have been heavily critical of the changes.

Doctors can opt out of the directive on a voluntary basis, but only individually, throwing rota planning into “chaos”, according to senior doctors. They want whole departments or specialities to be allowed to suspend the rules.

John Black, the president of the Royal College of Surgeons, called last week for the 48-hour limit to be postponed or suspended if during the swine flu pandemic, if the NHS has to cope with an expected surge of illness this winter.

The staff vacancy figures, compiled in March, showed that total vacancy rates are also up across most staff groups, rising to 5.2 per cent compared to 3.6 per cent in the same month last year. Three month vacancy rates jumped two thirds from 0.9 per cent to 1.5 per cent.

Of the total number of vacant posts, one in five had been left unfilled for three months or more.

Unions have already warned that a large number of nurses and midwives are due to retire in the next decade and among qualified nursing staff total vacancies rose from 2.5 per cent in 2008 to 3.1 per cent. Long-term vacancies also increased from 0.5 per cent to 0.7 per cent at the end of March.

Among midwives, vacancies increased from 2.1 per cent in 2008 to 3.4 per cent, with long term vacancies accounting for about one in four of all midwife vacancies.

The Royal College of Midwives has called for 5,000 extra staff to be recruited in order to improve care for mothers and babies, but it says the Government has only promised funding for the equivalent of 3,400 posts.

The figures show that London has the highest long-term vacancy rate among qualified nursing staff with the 3 month vacancy rate increasing from 1.2 per cent in 2008 to 1.6 per cent this year.


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