Securing the workforce, both home grown and recruited from overseas, to deliver the healthcare services that are required by patients has been earmarked as one of three “major NHS challenges”.
The chief executive of the NHS Confederation warned today that the health service had been absorbing pressure through the “goodwill” of its staff but was “starting to creak”.
“It is not just that we face unprecedented change, but that the pace of change is faster”
As an example of the staff shortages facing the service, Niall Dickson quoted recent Royal College of Nursing estimates that there were already 40,000 registered nurse vacancies in England.
“Nurses and doctors are having to work rotas with gaps that cannot be filled,” he said today in his keynote speech to the confederation’s annual conference in Liverpool.
Mr Dickson, a former editor of Nursing Times, warned that the NHS had also become too reliant on both agency staff and recruits from overseas.
“We remain too dependent on agency staff,” he said, adding. “Doctors, nurses and other professionals who come here from other countries are critical to our success.
“Put simply, the NHS would have collapsed long ago without them,” he said. “But for too long we have been over dependent on overseas recruitment – we have not trained enough of our own.”
The head of the organisation, which represents NHS organisations, argued that an “advanced economy” like the UK should “train enough for our needs”, realising that some of those would go abroad and others would come here in return.
“Nurses and doctors are having to work rotas with gaps that cannot be filled”
Sticking with education, Mr Dickson claimed the “nature of training also needs to change” to meet the needs of modern healthcare, with “more permeable” professional boundaries and staff needing to be “much more flexible”.
“New types of worker should be encouraged and much better use of the skills of existing professionals such as pharmacists, GPs, specialist consultants, and community nurses,” he stated.
“It is not just that we face unprecedented change, but that the pace of change is faster,” he said. “And in particular the impact of technology on social behaviour and political thought. This poses particular challenges for those who are responsible for education and training.”
He argued that it would mean training new types of staff to meet “new and different needs” and “retraining our existing workforce for new roles and new challenges”.
Mr Dickson also said the confederation looked forward to seeing the much-anticipated, but apparently delayed, workforce plan being drawn up by government arm’s length body Health Education England.
In addition, he stated that clarity was needed on the future position of NHS staff from the European Union in light of Brexit – an issue previously highlighted by the RCN, NHS Employers and others.
“This is fundamental – we have seen already that uncertainty about the future is affecting the 60,000 staff from the EU, the inflow has already begun to dry up and those that are here fear for their future,” he said, referring to a crash in the number of EU nurses joining the UK nursing register.
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He said such uncertainty “cannot be allowed to continue”, stating that it would be an ongoing priority for the Cavendish Coalition led by NHS Employers, which is part of the confederation.
It was also announced today that the confederation would be a leading member of the Brexit Health Alliance, a new group bringing together organisations representing the NHS, medical research, industry, patients and public health.
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Along with workforce issues, Mr Dickson highlighted service transformation and workforce as the three “fundamental challenges” currently facing the NHS.
“We need clarity on funding, we need political courage on transformation and a new approach on securing and supporting our workforce,” he added.