A government-commissioned report has revealed the NHS could be crippled by a shortage of nearly 200,000 nurses in just three years’ time, Nursing Times has learnt.
The major study makes predictions on changes in healthcare demand and the supply of registered nursing staff in the NHS in England between 2011 and 2016.
The report, compiled by the Centre for Workforce Intelligence, is not yet in the public domain but has been submitted to the Department of Health and is understood to have been read by ministers.
In the worst case scenario, the gap between supply and demand will grow year-on-year, leading to an overall shortage of around 190,000 registered nurses by 2016, the report predicts.
Under this scenario, demand for registered nurses will rise from 600,000 staff in 2011 to 700,000 in 2016, but the supply of nurses will fall from around 570,000 to around 510,000 over the same period.
Nursing Times revealed last year that the number of nurse training places at universities had been slashed by 2,500 places – a drop of 12.7%.
Meanwhile, 57% of respondents to a Nursing Times survey earlier this month described their ward or unit as already sometimes or always “dangerously understaffed”.
The new report is aimed at informing workforce planning in the NHS to help meet future needs. It is also understood to project nursing workforce demand and supply beyond 2016 as far forward as 2030.
In the best case scenario, the report will suggest there could be enough nurses in 2016, but only if demand remains at 2011 levels – unlikely given current trends in patient acuity driven by the country’s ageing population.
Peter Sharp, chief executive of the Centre for Workforce Intelligence, told Nursing Times the worst case scenario figures did not necessarily mean there would be an actual staff “shortage”.
“It’s only a shortage if someone is willing to employ someone and can’t,” he said. “We can see there will be greater demand – how that demand is met is another question.”
He said the NHS needed to find new ways of re-engaging and motivating existing staff, pointing out 65% of the staff likely to be working in 2030 would already be working now.
In particular he highlighted how healthcare assistants were used (see opposite). “In the past the use of HCAs has frankly been poor; poor in training with little or no regulation, but just because that’s been the case it doesn’t mean it should always be that way.
“We have to find ways of improving the existing workforce with new and different ways of working to help meet the rising demand,” he said.
If there is a shortage, the NHS may need to recruit nurses from overseas, as it has done in the past.
But this will be more difficulty in the future given new, tougher immigration rules and the fact the UK has signed up to a World Health Organization commitment to be self-sufficient in securing its own healthcare workforce.
Howard Catton, director of policy at the Royal College of Nursing, said it was good to highlight the potential shortage of staff, noting also the Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust public inquiry report published this month by Robert Francis QC.
“The Francis report has shone a spotlight on having the right numbers of nurses and the link between that and high quality care,” he said.
“There is absolutely a numbers issue and we need to see the supply line stabilised. We can’t afford to keep cutting the number of pre-registration training places. We also need to work much harder to keep people in the profession.”
Health Education England, along with Local Education and Training Boards (LETBs), will take on responsibility for the training and education of all healthcare professions from April.
A spokeswoman from HEE said there were limits to the predictions in the centre’s report, but it was a “contribution” to the debate on future staffing needs.
She added: “We will work with LETBs to produce robust workforce plans based upon the information they will have from local providers – as well as different forecasts of the future that various commentators have made – to ensure the NHS has staff in the right numbers, with the right skills and the right values and behaviours to meet the needs of patients.”
A Department of Health spokesperson said: “It is important that the NHS has the right staffing in to deliver high quality care to patients.
“The role of the Centre for Workforce Intelligence is to consider and report on a wide range of scenarios based on a number of factors; including whether the education and training of health care professionals planned will meet future demand.”