At least a third of hospital trusts in England have turned to actively recruiting nurses from overseas as they struggle to keep wards adequately staffed, an investigation by Nursing Times has found.
Workforce experts say the findings are proof of the start of a new NHS registered nurse shortage, which has led some trusts to recruit dozens of nurses from across Europe and further afield.
Of the 105 acute trusts that responded to a Freedom of Information request by Nursing Times, 40 had actively recruited nurses from overseas in the last 12 months – leading to more than 1,360 nurses coming to work in England.
A further 41 hospital trusts said they planned to actively recruit nurses from overseas in the next 12 months.
The investigation follows growing documentary evidence from trusts that nurse managers were being sent to recruitment fairs in Europe.
Nurses involved in recruitment told Nursing Times that hospital trusts were now struggling to get enough nursing staff to apply for posts and warned that wards could have to close if no action was taken.
Nottingham University Hospitals Trust currently has around 200 nurse vacancies. Maria Bentley, who oversees nurse recruitment at the trust, said: “We are definitely in the midst of a nursing shortage.
“It has become more acute over the last year but it’s been going in a general direction over the last couple of years. In the last six months we are just not getting applicants [for vacancies],” she said.
Ms Bentley told Nursing Times her trust had recruited 30 nurses from Portugal and had plans to return there before Christmas.
She added: “It is staffing that keeps me up at night. If we carry on the way we are, the only thing we can do is to start to shut wards if we can’t staff them.”
Spain and Portugal have so far proved to be the most popular countries targeted by trusts seeking nurses. Overall 29 nations have contributed nurses to the UK health service.
According to the data supplied to Nursing Times, the 40 trusts recruited a total of 503 nurses from Portugal, 472 from Spain, 155 from Ireland and 111 from the Philippines.
In addition, 32 nurses have come from Italy and around a dozen each from India, Greece and Poland. Smaller numbers have also come from Australia, Canada, the US and Switzerland.
The largest overseas recruiter identified by Nursing Times was University Hospital Southampton Foundation Trust, which gained a total of 144 nurses, 90 from Portugal and 54 from Spain. Not far behind was King’s College Hospital Foundation Trust, in South London, which recruited 96 nurses from the Philippines.
Weston Area Health Trust in Somerset has recruited 39 Spanish nurses to work at its hospital. Supporting the move, trust director of nursing Christine Perry said: “Safety has to be the biggest concern.
“The most safe and practical solution for us was to go abroad and recruit internationally. I think across the NHS, international recruitment will have to continue.”
However, she noted that trusts needed “robust” induction processes to deal with cultural differences and ensure overseas nurses were up to the standard required by the NHS.
The findings follow warnings made earlier this year of an impending nursing shortage in the NHS, sparked by repeated reductions in the number of education places in recent years.
The number of places on nursing courses has fallen by 2,500 in the three years between 2010 and 2013, tempered slightly by a small increase of 334 for 2013-14.
As previously reported by Nursing Times, the Centre for Workforce Intelligence has also predicted a likely shortage of 47,500 nurses by 2016.
Our findings echo those of a separate, as yet unpublished investigation by the Royal College of Nursing. It found 37 trusts had sent managers to a recruitment event abroad and a further 12 were planning to hire from overseas.
RCN director of policy Howard Catton said: “When employers are getting on planes to recruit nurses you know you have a crisis in workforce supply that is happening right here, right now.”
He said there would need to be “tough decisions” made in coming months on the number of education places commissioned.
“We need to see a significant increase, around 10% in the number of commissions,” he said.
Professor Jim Buchan, from the School of Health at Edinburgh’s Queen Margaret University, said: “What we are seeing is trusts resorting to the quick fix of international recruitment because they are not able to rapidly resource nurses from the local labour market. They are looking to fill positions as quick as they can.
“A national shortage doesn’t happen overnight but what we are seeing now is the pendulum beginning to shift towards a shortage.”
The recruitment problems come against a background of an actual drop in the number of nursing posts in the years since the coalition government took office in 2010.
Latest figures from the Health and Social Care Information Centre show the number of full time equivalent nursing posts in the NHS fell by 3,000 since 2010, while the total headcount has reduced by more than 5,000.
Professor Buchan suggested that the previous holders of these posts had now disappeared from the recruitment market, with some retiring, transferring to independent providers or choosing to leave the profession.
In 2010 the UK signed up to a World Health Organization commitment that it would be self-sufficient in supplying its healthcare workforce to avoid other countries health systems being devastated by large numbers of nurses leaving.
A spokesman for the Department of Health said: “Recruiting from abroad is nothing new. Overseas nurses make a very valuable contribution to NHS patient care. However, they should only ever work in the NHS if they have proven their competence and language skills.”
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