Four-fifths of NHS organisations in England are facing nursing shortages, new figures show.
To address the huge vacancy rate almost half are actively recruiting nurses from outside the UK, according to a new report from the organisation NHS Employers.
The review, based on questionnaires filled out by 104 NHS trusts, found that 83% of organisations are experiencing qualified nursing workforce supply shortages.
The overall vacancy rate across organisations that provided data was calculated at 10% – equivalent to 12,566 whole-time equivalent posts not permanently occupied.
In addition, 45% said they have actively recruited from outside the UK in the last 12 months to fill vacancies.
“Attracting nurses back to practice has the potential to address current shortages”
The majority were focusing recruitment campaigns in Europe, with Spain, Ireland and Portugal most commonly targeted, the report states.
There is also a stark number of positions that have been empty for at least three months – which are dubbed “hard to fill vacancies”.
NHS Employers, which also polled three clinical commissioning groups, one special health authority and one social enterprise providing NHS services, found that 42 organisations estimated they have between one and 50 full-time equivalent hard to fill nursing vacancies, a further 39 said they have between 50 and 100.
Worryingly, 8% of organisations estimated that they have 100 nurse vacancies.
Health Education England said that former nurses should be urged to return to work to fill staff shortages.
The organisation, which tasked NHS Employers to conduct its report as part of its work to encourage nurses to return to work in the NHS, is appealing for nurses who no longer practice because they have left the profession to start a family, those who have moved to work in a different part of the health service and others whose registration may have lapsed, to consider returning to a nursing role.
“The NHS has to examine and rectify failings in long-term workforce planning”
If these nurses were to return to their old jobs it would be a quick and cost effective way to deal with the nursing shortage, HEE said.
Janice Stevens, who is leading the return to practice work for HEE, said: “Where trusts do have shortages of nurses, it is often those with experience that they need most. Attracting nurses back to practice has the potential to address current shortages.
“The next phase of our work will involve designing an efficient process to ensure the success of any campaign encouraging nurses to return to practice. Preventing staff leaving is equally important and also requires focus and attention.”
Dr Peter Carter, chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said the report was “further evidence of the crisis in nurse numbers”.
He said: “The NHS Employers’ survey shows that the vast majority of health service organisations in England are experiencing shortages in the supply of qualified nurses. RCN research in November found a vacancy rate in nursing posts of 6%, while these figures from the start of 2014 appear to show a 10% vacancy rate.
“More than half of respondents are considering recruiting nurses from abroad because there are not enough in the UK. This is a clear sign of failure in the NHS approach to workforce planning.
“It is certainly positive that NHS organisations are now acknowledging the need for more nurses, but urgent action must be taken to address the current shortfalls in the nursing workforce.
“One part of the solution should be to encourage registered nurses who no longer work in the NHS to return to practice. Bringing their skills and experience back to the health service can be a relatively quick and cost-effective means of plugging the gaps in staffing and the RCN supports HEE’s work in this area.
“Such nurses are an invaluable resource for the NHS, but attracting them back into work will require the provision of dedicated support from employers. There needs to be sufficient funding for return to practice programmes and suitable supervision and mentoring processes in place.
“But above all it must be stressed that the NHS has to examine and rectify the failings in long-term workforce planning that have led to this unnecessary numbers crisis. Without an increase in nurse numbers the quality of patient care in the NHS is being jeopardised. This cannot continue.”
A Department of Health spokesman insisted that the number of nurses working on hospital wards is on the rise.
He said: “Since the Francis Inquiry the number of nurses working on hospital wards has been increasing. But we know the NHS is facing growing demands.
“HEE has already increased adult nurse training places by nearly 10% this year. To help hospitals now, the training body is also encouraging experienced registered nurses back to work.”