It could be said that, when it comes to nursing, the UK is in the midst of a perfect storm.
The healthcare sector is currently facing an increasing shortage of nursing staff, with as many as 38,000 full-time nursing vacancies in the NHS.
At the same time, the number of applications to study nursing at university has dropped by a third since 2016, overseas applications have fallen 87% in the last year as a result of the EU referendum and more nurses are now leaving the profession than joining it.
This means we do not have the nursing capacity to care for the number of patients in the system, and with an ageing population requiring increased provision, this is not something that is set to improve. In fact, three quarters of current registered nurses in a recent survey commissioned by The Open University expect the situation to worsen.
There are two issues at the root of the problem: recruitment of new nurses into the profession, and retention of existing nurses.
In terms of recruitment, it is clear that the lack of bursaries for pre-registration nurse education, along with the negative portrayal we often see of the profession – with stretched workforces, high pressure and long hours – have been a deterrent for many considering a career in nursing.
“The future for access to nurses from abroad was extremely uncertain, further threatening the pipeline of new talent”
Until recently, when the government announced it was relaxing immigration rules for skilled healthcare workers, the future for access to nurses from abroad was extremely uncertain, further threatening the pipeline of new talent.
Trusts are also experiencing increasing challenges in retaining their existing staff. According to The Open University’s report Tackling the Nursing Shortage, a concerning number (34%) of registered nurses are unhappy, and half of these are contemplating either leaving for another NHS trust or leaving the profession altogether.
But the most common reason for leaving a trust was not working conditions, but to secure roles with better opportunities for continuing professional development.
The supply and demand issue in the nursing profession is costing the already financially strained NHS nearly £1.5 billion extra a year in temporary staffing costs, which is not a sustainable resolution. We need to look to a strategic, long-term solution, which will improve attraction and retention into the nursing workforce, and ensure our health services are protected.
“Apprenticeships are opening up new routes into the profession”
Flexible, work-based learning could be one solution to the issue. It enables organisations to grow their own registered nursing workforce and allows nurses to gain skills ‘on the job’. It inspires and motivates the workforce, breeds greater loyalty, and helps to build skills and retain talent in local communities.
Apprenticeships – like The Open University’s Registered Nurse Degree Apprenticeship – are opening up new routes into the profession. They allow trusts to retrain the workers within their existing talent pool by offering professional development opportunities, making the trust a more attractive place to work, boosting retention and attracting new recruits.
As the NHS is the biggest contributor to the apprenticeship levy, which costs organisations 0.5% of its annual wage bill, it needs to ensure that it gets return for its investment.
By embracing new apprenticeships, trusts can make use of the apprenticeship levy funding to develop new nurses and relieve some of the mounting staffing strain, ensuring that trusts are able to deliver efficient services that enhance the quality of patient care.
Jan Draper is professor of nursing at The Open University