Support for former nurses wishing to return to the profession is patchy, with many struggling to access courses and some forced to organise their own work experience, a review by Health Education England has found.
Return to Practice (RTP) schemes are a key plank of the workforce body’s plans to plug significant shortfalls in the nursing workforce.
However, initial research has revealed a mixed picture − with potential for the idea, but also vast inconsistency in existing courses and support for people who embark on them.
The first stage of work to develop a Return to Practice campaign – being led by Health Education England West Midlands – found luring back nurses whose registration has lapsed could be a fast and cost-effective way to tackle current shortages.
“We need to balance the risk of providing flexible working with the risk of having gaps in the workforce”
The research found those returning to the workforce were often mature nurses with a wealth of experience. In addition, RTP courses had low drop-out rates and nurses return via this route often went on to remain in the profession until they retired.
However, the study uncovered “significant variation in practice and process”, said Michelle Norton, nurse leadership associate at HEE West Midlands.
She unveiled the findings at Health Education England’s first annual conference in London last Thursday.
Often nurses found it difficult to find courses in their local areas and, while practice placements were a vital part of RTP training, some nurses had to organise these themselves.
“Some courses identified placements for people but some won’t accept you on a course unless you had secured a placement,” Ms Norton told delegates.
She said many nurses wishing to get back into nursing said they had asked NHS organisations about doing placements but their requests had been rejected.
Meanwhile, RTP nurses’ reported mixed experiences on placements. “The level of support can vary depending on their mentor and the capacity to support learning in that environment,” said Ms Norton.
The study also found the costs of RTP courses varied from £600 to £1,500 but those on the most expensive courses did not necessarily have the best experiences. Some returning nurses were offered bursaries to complete training while other had to fund courses entirely by themselves.
There was also big variation in the support available once RTP nurses were back on the frontline with the best schemes offering a form of preceptorship and ongoing supervision.
A key issue for RTP nurses was lack of confidence, said Ms Norton, who said employers needed to recognise they had different needs to newly-qualified staff.
Employers needed to explore options to make it easier for these experienced nurses – many with family and other commitments – to come back, such as allowing them to work as healthcare assistants while doing RTP training or more flexible rostering.
“We need to balance the risk of providing flexible working with the risk of having gaps in the workforce and the costs associated with that,” said Ms Norton.
The next stage in the work to develop a national RTP campaign will focus on improving the process such as ensuring nurses who wish to return can easily access information about courses. A number of new trial RTP schemes are set to be launched in September this year.
However, Health Education England currently does not yet have a clear picture of the level demand for courses and the numbers of people potentially interested in re-joining the profession.
Ms Norton said other work by Health Education England would look at ways to bring back nurses currently working in non-clinical roles and overseas nurses who had struggled to get their qualifications recognised in this country and so were currently working in healthcare assistant roles.