The scale of the transfer of NHS nursing staff to independent sector providers in recent years has been revealed in new figures.
At least 17,000 staff, mostly clinical workers, have moved since 2010, according to revised workforce statistics published by Health and Social Care Information Centre.
“We hear very mixed views about staff experience working for private providers”
The organisation, soon to be renamed NHS Digital, said the shift was largely down to transfers prompted by two government policies, both of which particularly affected community services.
The first was the Transforming Community Services initiative, which forced primary care trusts to divest themselves of their provider services, by either joining them with existing trusts, forming independent trusts or social enterprises, or passing them to private providers. Most of these transfers took place in 2011.
The second policy deemed to have brought about the shift was “any qualified provider”, which was pushed as a way of opening up some primary and community services to competition by the Department of Health between 2011 and 2013.
In 2010, there were 664 whole-time equivalent staff registered as working for independent sector providers. The following year, the number more than doubled to 1,807 before it rocketed to 17,876 by 2015.
The HSCIC confirmed the increase reflected staff who had transferred from NHS employment, and that improved data collection was not the main factor behind the increase. The new workforce data collection was published in March
Nurses appear to have been most affected by the change, with a 5,938 whole-time equivalent increase in the number in the independent sector since 2010, the figures show.
Crystal Oldman, chief executive of the Queen’s Nursing Institute, said community staff had experienced some problems moving out of the NHS.
She said: “We hear very mixed views about staff experience working for private providers – and concerns about the lack of investment in the development of staff.”
For example, there were concerns that some nurses were not being supported to take the district nurse specialist practitioner qualification, which “has been an integral part of postgraduate nursing education for many years”, she said.
Commenting on the data, Peter Griffiths, chair of health services research at the University of Southampton, said: “I think that this does clearly show the extent of the transfer into the private sector and is significant.”
He said he was concerned staff shortages could be exacerbated by “the incentive to take a narrow view of the interests of the provider rather than the service as a whole”, and “the fragmentation of the NHS into a myriad of private providers with a loose affiliation to the [NHS] ‘brand’”.
The HSCIC believes its workforce data covers most large independent providers, but that many smaller providers are not included. Prior to 2015 it only covered organisations using the electronic staff record.
David Hare, chief executive of the NHS Partners Network, which represents private providers that hold health service contracts, said: “Independent sector providers train thousands of clinical and non-clinical staff every year and this shows up in the high standards of care provided by staff working in the independent sector.
“The sector works hard to ensure that services are coordinated in the best interests of patients and takes a positive and proactive approach to staff development,” he told Nursing Times’ sister title Health Service Journal.
“The process of staff transferring to independent sector community services providers has taken place over several years and all the indications are that this has worked well and that staff are fully supported to deliver first rate patient care,” he added.