Shrinking workforce ‘likely to hamper NHS long-term plan’

12 Feb 19

Key ambitions for the NHS long-term plan are under threat because of chronic workforce shortages, a health think-tank has warned.

Plans to improve mental health care, primary care and expand community care services will be hindered by a shrinking number of key healthcare professionals, the Health Foundation has said today.

The long-term plan committed to improving community and primary care services but the Health Foundation said the number of nurses and health visitors working in community health services have continued a long-term decline, falling by 1.2% in July 2018 compared to the same month a year before.

Mental health services were also prioritised in the plan but the report found that numbers in mental health nursing have increased by less than 0.5% in the same period, while psychiatrists have seen the smallest percentage increase 0.6% amongst doctors.

Anita Charlesworth, director of research and economics at the Health Foundation, said: “Providing more care outside of hospitals is central to the NHS long term plan but the health services faces an uphill struggle. If it can’t recruit and retain more health care professionals in primary, mental health and community care, this will continue to be an unrealised aspiration.

“To bring an end to chronic workforce shortages for good, action must go beyond specific policy measures and address the underlying major fault lines in the current approach, particularly the lack of alignment between staffing and funding, and the damaging impact of wider government policy.”

The number of hospital-based doctors continues to grow and overall staff saw a modest increase of 1.8% against a backdrop of more than 100,000 vacancies reported by trust in England.

But Charlesworth noted a “long-term downward trend for key staff groups” including GPs - which fell by 1.6% over the year to September 2018. The government has previously pledged to find 5,000 more GPs by 2020.

She also highlighted the importance of the NHS’s workforce implementation plan - due to be published later in the year - in delivering the long-term plan.

The report noted that international recruitment is a key source of new staff but said: “It is currently being constrained by broader migration policies and by the uncertainties of Brexit.”

Staff retention has not improved since 2011-12 and work-life balance has increasingly been reported as a factor for people leaving the NHS. Around one in five staff left their role in community trusts in 2017-18, according to the report.

The Department of Health and Social Care has been approached for comment.

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