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NHS struggles to recruit thousands of healthcare professionals

More than two thirds of NHS trusts and health boards are struggling to recruit qualified healthcare professionals.

More than two thirds of NHS trusts and health boards are struggling to recruit qualified healthcare professionals

Data from a BBC Freedom of Information request shows that on 1 December 2015, the NHS in England, Wales and Northern Ireland had more than 23,443 nursing vacancies – equivalent to 9% of the workforce.

In comparison, the average vacancy rate across the UK economy from November to January 2016 was 2.7%, according to the Office for National Statistics.

The figures – which include 106 out of 166 trusts and health boards in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – also revealed:

  • Between 2013 and 2015, there has been a 50% increase in nursing vacancies, from 12,513 to 18,714.
  • For doctors, the number of vacancies went from 2,907 to 4,669 – an increase of roughly 60%.
  • In England and Wales, there were 1,265 vacancies for registered nurses in emergency departments – about 11% of the total.
  • For consultants in emergency medicine there were 243 vacancies – again 11% of the total.
  • Paediatric consultants – specialists in the care of babies, children and young people – were also hard to recruit, with 221 vacancies – about 7% of the total.

There are many reasons for the large number of vacancies in nursing and doctor posts on hospitals in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. One simple reason is that more posts now exist, but the number of trainees has not kept up.

In the wake of the 2008 financial crash, nursing places were cut, although they are now on the way back up. The BMA suggests it takes around 15 years between a medical student starting out at university and becoming a consultant so planning the NHS workforce supply and demand is a complicated process with a long lead-in time.

But there are also increasing pressures on the health service right across the UK which the NHS is having to respond to – a growing population that is older and sicker, with more complex health needs. In plain language “complex health needs” means more than one thing going on at a time, so an elderly person might be having to cope with arthritis, diabetes and heart problems.

But one other important factor is the “Francis effect” – the report by Sir Robert Francis into the scandal at Stafford Hospital identified a shortage of nurses as a key factor in the poor care of patients. Trusts in England in particular have been under pressure to recruit more staff. But when there is a shortage of qualified nurses they have resorted to expensive agency staff and that in turn has led to a growing financial crisis.

One solution to the staff shortage adopted by many trusts is employing doctors and nurses from overseas.

The figures show 69% – of all NHS trusts and health boards are seeking staff overseas.

And in just England and Wales, the figure is nearly three quarters of all trusts and health boards – 74%.

Meanwhile, the Royal College of Nursing and the British Medical Association blame poor workforce planning for the problems hospitals are having in finding qualified staff.

Janet Davies, chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing, said: “Nursing posts are often the first target when savings need to be made, leading the NHS to find itself dangerously short and having to spend more on agency staff and recruitment from other countries.”

A spokesman for the doctor’s union the BMA – which is currently locked in a dispute with the government in England over a new contract for junior doctors – said: “Poor workforce planning means we aren’t producing enough doctors and sending them to the right areas,” he said.

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