The NHS must do more to cater for “millennial” nurses and doctors who want flexibility, career breaks and the opportunity to travel the world, according to the head of Health Education England, who said this was one way to boost retention and address the current “workforce crisis”.
This could include helping facilitate year-long placements abroad with the goal that staff would then happily return to the NHS, said HEE chief executive Professor Ian Cumming.
He was giving evidence to the Commons’ health and social care committee on Monday afternoon, in the second of two sessions to explore the recently published long-term plan for the NHS.
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Ensuring there are enough nurses, doctors and other key staff will be crucial to the plan’s success, the committee has been told, with a separate and much-anticipated workforce implementation plan due to be published some time after the spending review in the autumn.
However, MPs were also keen to know what immediate steps were being taken to tackle staffing shortages – including a lack of nurses.
Professor Cumming admitted there were only really a handful of ways the NHS could plug current staffing gaps in the short-term before efforts to boost numbers in training bore fruit.
“If we are trying to address the workforce crisis we now have in the NHS, there are only three ways we can do that,” he told the committee.
“One of those is encouraging people to come back to practice as healthcare professionals, one of those is by keeping staff we have already got in the NHS and the third is by bringing people in who have trained elsewhere,” he said.
When it came to boosting retention, he said key factors included ongoing education and training, as well as “simple things” that made people’s lives easier such as access to a cash machine or Amazon locker at work.
In addition, Professor Cumming said it was important to recognise that new, younger nurses and doctors may have different expectations from a career in healthcare.
“We also need to recognise that, as millennials coming through the professional workforce now, they actually want a different offer from their employer than perhaps – dare I say – people like myself in generations that have gone before,” he said.
“There isn’t an expectation for the same linear careers – that people want more flexibility,” he said. “They want to move between different roles and, therefore, what we need to do is allow people to plan their careers with that flexibility in mind.”
“A just culture with strong management and leadership leads to a more highly motivated workforce”
The head of HEE also suggested millennials wanted the chance to take career breaks for reasons other than having a family.
“Young nurses, young doctors are saying to us, ‘I want to go abroad for a year but then I want to come back’,” he said.
He said: “Now one way want to approach that is by trying to facilitate that placement abroad because if we facilitate it, if we keep in contact with them, we can make sure that they come back at the end of it.”
Meanwhile, health and social care secretary Matt Hancock told the committee that improving workplace culture was another “big one” when it came to retaining nurses and other clinicians.
This included valuing the contribution of frontline staff, he said, “where if they can improve the way something is done then that is seen as a welcome intervention rather than dismissed”.
“Essentially, a just culture with strong management and leadership leads to a more highly motivated workforce and morale and retention are incredibly strongly correlated,” he said.
The long-term plan for the health service in England promised a “step change” in international recruitment in order to bridge domestic shortfalls.
Professor Cumming said there was the potential to bring thousands of overseas nurses and doctors to work in the NHS through “earn, learn and return” schemes, which offer clinicians the chance to gain experience and training in the NHS for a set amount of time before going back to work in their home nation.
“In the case of many nurses that is a three-year period. We give them the postgraduate education and training whilst they’re here,” he said. “They take those skills back to the country that they came from but also while they’re here they’re giving a service to the NHS and the population.”
He said work was under way on an “ethical framework” for overseas recruitment to ensure the NHS was not stripping staff from places that “desperately need their clinical workforce”.
“We’re looking at boosting the numbers that are coming in through that ethical recruitment route to several thousand a year”
However, he said government bodies were already working with other countries keen to benefit from the fact the NHS “was recognised around the world as a centre for excellence in healthcare education and training”.
“There are a number of countries that we are working in close partnership with where the countries themselves have a desire for post-graduate education of their own clinical workforce,” he told MPs.
“We’re seeing a significantly growing level of interest in these schemes and we’re looking at boosting the numbers that are coming in through that ethical recruitment route to several thousand a year,” he added
In addition, Mr Hancock said changes to the Nursing and Midwifery Council’s language requirements for overseas nursing professionals seeking to join the UK register – which came into force in November last year – should make it “easier” for them to comply.
Meanwhile, the relaxation of immigration rules in July, which removed a cap on the numbers of nurses and doctors that can be recruited from overseas, had also been “helpful” and there were plans for this to continue under new immigration legislation, he said.
“That is very positive,” he said. “What we now need to do is to get on and turn international recruitment from something that individual organisations and trusts do separately to something that is more co-ordinated, so we can be more effective at it.”