There are currently 23,443 empty nursing and doctor posts, amounting to a staggering 9% of the workforce. Staff shortages in the NHS are a constant talking point among the media, the government, and those in or training to join the profession.
From criticism over waiting times and cancellations to recruitment from overseas, our healthcare system often shoulders the blame for epidemics, health scares and stories of medical negligence, with staffing shortfalls regularly taking the brunt.
What exactly is going on in our world-class healthcare system, still lauded across the world for its affordable, high-quality care, pioneering techniques and research? Far from the criticism of previous years, when people would graduate without a job, today’s medical students have their pick of posts, with more than two-thirds of trusts and health boards recruiting abroad due to the poor supply of trainees closer to home.
There was a 50% rise in nursing vacancies between 2013 and 2015 and a vacancy hike of 60% for NHS doctors. Registered nurses in emergency departments accounted for around 11% of the total, with another 11% looking for consultants in emergency medicine. Empty paediatric consultant posts assumed 7% of the total. These are all high-profile, critical positions previously in high demand.
What are the reasons for the huge number of vacancies? One is the fact that there are more positions to fill and the number of trainees has not increased accordingly. This was not helped by the fact that the number of training places was cut during the financial crash of 2008. Although this figure is creeping back up, the level is not close to where it needs to be to cope with demand.
Another consideration is how long it takes to qualify. The BMA estimates it takes around 15 years on average for a student starting medical training to become a consultant; therefore, the number of suitably-qualified professionals will take time to catch up with any sudden surge in vacancies.
These factors, combined with the nation’s evolving health and medical needs, is widening the gap between NHS vacancies and the staff trained to fill them. The ageing population is seeing a growing number of people suffering age-related illnesses, including ‘complex health needs’ comprising multiple conditions such as arthritis, diabetes and heart problems.
One way in which NHS trusts have been handling staffing shortfalls is by hiring agency staff; however, high agency fees mean there are less funds available to cover the number of vacancies.
Another approach is to employ doctors and nurses from overseas, with more than two-thirds of trusts and health boards across Britain recruiting from abroad. Look at England and Wales and this rockets to 74%. Reciprocally, people from as far away as India and the Philippines are attracted to the NHS by the selection of jobs and the fact the posts are permanent.
The Department of Health in England has confirmed that staffing is a priority and says there are measures in place to train more people; however, it acknowledges that much more needs to be done and has committed to creating up to 10,000 extra training places by the time the current parliament ends.
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