Solutions for the NHS Workforce Crisis

This week, the Kingsfund, one of the most respected think-tanks on health and social care in the UK declared that the current NHS staffing levels are becoming a ‘national emergency’.

 

The latest figures have been published by the regulator, NHS Improvement, for the April to June period.

 

They showed:

  11.8% of nurse posts were not filled – a shortage of nearly 42,000

  9.3% of doctor posts were vacant – a shortage of 11,500

  Overall, 9.2% of all posts were not filled – a shortage of nearly 108,000

 

NHS vacancies a ‘national emergency’

 

This is having a profound impact on staff who are working in the NHS now, with low morale, high stress levels, increasing mental health problems and people leaving the profession (either to go over seas, where pay and work-life balance is considerably better) or retire early. 

 

Increasing the number of doctors, nurses and midwives (all with considerable debt, mind you!), by 25% over the next 5 years is welcome, but it doesn’t solve the problem now, and it is unlikely to be enough, even then!

 

But, let’s take a solutions focussed approach. What can we do now? I think there are a few things we need to consider:

 

  1. I can understand how frustrating it is for the public to find that waits are longer to receive much needed care. When we’re anxious or worried about our own heath or that of a loved one, we are understandably at a position of higher stress. However, this staffing crisis is not of the making of the nurses, doctors and other health professionals who work long hours every day to provide the best health care they can. So, it’s really important that as a country, we treat our NHS staff with kindness, gratitude and respect. The current abuse of NHS staff is making the job even harder and really making people not want to come to work. And that means we also need to make complaints in a way that is perhaps a bit more compassionate or understanding towards people who are working under high stress situations. It is important that we learn from mistakes, but complaints have a huge impact on staff and can hugely affect their confidence, even when they are dealt with in a very compassionate way by those in leadership. 
  2. We need to ensure that we use our appointments appropriately. Yes – sometimes, we have to wait a while to see our GP, but if we get better in the mean time, we really don’t need to be keeping the appointment! And missing appointments costs us all so much time and energy and makes those waiting lists ever longer. If we value our health system, we need to either keep appointments, or take responsibility to cancel them.
  3. We need to take an urgent look at the working day of our NHS staff and work out how we build more health and wellbeing breaks into their days. We need staff to have space to connect, keep learning, be active, be mindful and take appropriate breaks. This means senior leadership teams getting the culture right, when the pressure is on and the stakes are high. 
  4. We need to get smarter with digital and enable patients to make better and more informed choices about their own care and treatment, with better access to their notes. In this way, we waste less time and empower people to become greater experts in the conditions with which they live everyday. There are great examples of where this is happening already. It isn’t rocket science and can be rolled out quite easily. It’s good to see some announcements about this from the new health secretary Matt Hancock MP, but we need to make sure the deals and the products are the right ones. It’s also vital, when it comes to digital solutions that Matt Hancock listens to his colleague and chair of the health select committee, Dr Sarah Wollaston MP, in being careful what he promotes and prioritises.
  5. We need to be thinking NOW about the kind of workforce we are going to need in the next 2-3, and 5-10 years and we need to get the training and expectations right now! There is no point designing our future workforce based on our current needs. Rather, we need expert predictive analysis of the kind of future workforce we will need, in line with the ‘10 year plan’ and begin to grow that workforce now. If it’s healthcoaches we need to work alongside GP practices, then let’s get them ready, if it’s community focussed nursing teams, then let’s adjust the training programmes. This kind is vital and must influence what happens next.
  6. We need to stop putting pressure on NHS staff to deliver that which is currently undeliverable without causing significant stress to an already overstretched workforce. By this I mean centrally driven schemes, such as the intended roll out of GPs working 8-8, 7 days a week. Maybe it’s an aspiration for the future if we can sufficiently reimagine the workforce, but it’s not a priority now and isn’t the answer to the problems we’re facing.
  7. We need to stop the cutting of social care in local governments, and ensure that central funding flows to where it needs to be, to ensure the allied support services are present in local communities to work alongside NHS colleagues in getting the right care in the right place at the right time. This is the single biggest cause of our long ED waits and our problems with delayed discharges from hospital. It isn’t rocket science. It’s the reality of cuts to our social care provision, which have been too deep and this needs to be reversed.

 

Personally, although it is an option, I feel uncomfortable about a ‘recruitment drive’ from overseas, as it is very de-stabilising to health care systems in more deprived parts of the world when we do that. I think there are some win-win initiative we could develop pretty quickly that could also form part of our international development strategy.

 

In summary, we need to treat our NHS staff with kindness, look after their wellbeing, use our services appropriately, use digital technology with wisdom and not for political gain, redesign and start building the workforce of the future now, stop undeliverable initiatives and ensure the right funding and provision of services through social care which means central government funding back into local government. It won’t solve everything, but it will go along way towards giving us a more sustainable future to the NHS.

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Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste

So, the NHS is in another winter crisis.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a crisis  as:

1 A time of intense difficulty or danger.
‘the current economic crisis’

Mass noun ‘the monarchy was in crisis’

1.1 A time when a difficult or important decision must be made. As modifier ‘the situation has reached crisis point’
1.2 The turning point of a disease when an important change takes place, indicating either recovery or death.
Origin
Late Middle English (denoting the turning point of a disease): medical Latin, from Greek krisis ‘decision’, from krinein ‘decide’. The general sense ‘decisive point’ dates from the early 17th century.

 

A crisis is still a crisis, even if you see it coming. What is vital, as per Winston Churchill, is that a) we don’t waste this moment, but allow it to be a true tuning point and b) we don’t rush prematurely to actions to try and solve it, but ensure we look deep enough and far enough and then move towards collective steps for an altogether different kind of future.

 

I think there are some difficult and inconvenient truths that we need to face up to together. If we can do so, then we can move beyond sensational news cycles into co-producing something really exciting. Here are my incomplete thoughts about where we might want to think about starting:

 

  1. We need to get some perspective! One of the dangers of believing everything is bad is that we start to believe that the NHS is over. It is not over. It is 70 years old and it is transitioning, but it is not over! In the crisis we find ourselves in, let’s remember why the NHS is such an incredible thing and why its integration with social care is so vital. The Commonwealth Fund rates the NHS as the BEST healthcare system in the world, when it comes to equity, care and accessibility. However, our outcomes are significantly worse than that of our peers – there are some really important reasons for this, which we need to understand better. One of the major reasons is that our goals are so short term, that we cannot bring the long term changes to the health and wellbeing that we need – and this is caused by the way the NHS is run and the nature of our political cycles.
  2. We need to stop the boring, binary, partisan nonsense that is the political boxing match. It really is grow-up time when it comes to our arguments. There are some very different perspectives on why we’re in the crisis we’re in, what we might do about it and how we should go about those things. However, shouting our perspectives ever more loudly, whilst never encountering or deeply listening to the other perspectives in the room make it impossible for us to find an effective 3rd way forward together. We are well versed in the blue vs red options, but let us be honest, please. Neither the reds nor the blues are wholly right, and neither is wholly wrong! It is absolutely OK to hold different perspectives, but the manner of our arguments is astoundingly pathetic. Whilst all this shouting goes on, there are several perspectives that are not being heard, important voices, those of the patient, the carer, the poor etc. We need to stop our reactionary, swing left, swing right steering of this great ship (and that’s not to say a centrist approach is best either!) and learn to have some humility. Humility starts with listening and being willing to change. This is being so beautifully demonstrated by the Rose Castle Foundation and Cambridge University through their work with the vastly differing world views of Conservative Islam, Judaism and Christianity and offers us much learning and hope for the NHS and indeed any other of our deeply held belief systems. Anyone willing to have better conversations and find a way forward?
  3. The maths simply doesn’t add up. We need some honesty.  A few weeks ago, the head of NHSI Jim Mackey, said that by April the NHS will be in around £2.2billion of debt. That is a very conservative estimate. It is a mathematical impossibility to close wards and scale down the size of our hospitals at a time when district nursing numbers have reduced by 28% over the last 5 years and social care is on its knees AND sort out the deficit! We know what the direction of travel needs to be, but the equation is simply unworkable, due to time and workforce pressures.We need to understand the true scale of the problems we’re facing and be real about how much money is going into health and social care spending compared to what is actually needed.
  4. The reason for this is that health and social care funding is becoming more costly and more complex. Our population is growing in size and people are living longer – this is great, on many levels (although we still need a much better conversation about death and why sometimes we keep people alive, when we could allow them to die well and peacefully). However, as we grow older, we develop more health conditions, and social needs, which require more costly treatments and packages of care, which we’re simply not accounting for, especially when we know the predictions of how our population will grow and age over the next 20 years.
  5. We therefore need to have a long term vision of how we want to build the most safe, excellent, effective, equitable, efficient, compassionate and kind health and social care system in the world whilst recognising in order to so, we will HAVE to make some upfront, BIG investments. It is simply impossible to have double austerity on health and social care and then believe we can do the transformational work necessary for the future change we need. Austerity has woken us up to the fact that there are some inefficient ways of working and some things we could definitely do more effectively in partnership. We’ve learnt that now. However, as a philosophy it is now defunct for where we need to go.
  6. This means, we have to put significantly more money into the system now. Once we have done some more work on the vision and plans for the future (the 5 year forward view is too short and although sets us up a good trajectory, is not ambitious enough), we need to ensure there is a sufficient injection of cash (not removal of it) to make this possible. So, we have some options available to us. A) We could increase tax for everyone – something that 67% of our population seem to be willing to pay. B) We could close tax loopholes and ensure that companies like Amazon and Google pay the tax that is owed. C) We could also increase our GDP % spend on health and social care – remember, currently, we have one of the lowest % spend of any of the other OECD nations. Perhaps a combination of all of these things is necessary.
  7. Creating long term health and social care solutions means that we have to put population and public health as the foundation of the system. We know that prevention is better than cure. We know that if we promote health and wellbeing, disease will be far from us. The disinvestment in these areas and the over reliance on a very stretched and struggling community-voluntary-faith sector is a recipe for disaster. There is huge work to be done in deeply listening to and working with our communities to improve the health and wellbeing of everyone, using the best research, evidence and data available to us through our public health bodies in order to make this shift.
  8. This means we need to continue to tackle the wider determinants of health and think radically about these things as being serious public health issues. This is how the city of Glasgow has gone about tackling knife crime and London has much to learn. We need to apply wisdom and learning to things like smoking, sugar, alcohol, pollution, drugs, road traffic accidents, domestic violence, suicide and adverse childhood experiences. We also need to develop a radically generous philosophy to the areas of job creation, housing, land rights and the care of the environment of which we are stewards not lords.
  9. We have to take greater responsibility and care of the health and wellbeing of ourselves and of those around us. It is not possible for us to have a national health and social care system that is sustainable if we think we can live exactly how we want whilst thinking someone else will simply mop up the mess or pay the tab. Our sugar, food and alcohol consumption, lack of exercise, driving, smoking and drug habits are all areas where we do have to take greater responsibility. NHS staff need to lead by example here. They are also areas where government give those lobbies far too much power and where we need better legislation to help bring about change. It is a both/and not an either/or approach.
  10. We need to create a much more shared-care approach with patients, co-partner with patients to enable them to understand the conditions they live with so that they are able to self-manage/self-care more effectively and create community support groups.
  11. We need to use digital solutions to full effect. We need to widen the access to patients having their own online records, the sharing of data across the system and getting savvy with better apps and technology for the benefit of patients and communities.
  12. We need to change our expectations of what we believe our ‘rights’ are in terms of health and social care. As an example, people phone up a GP surgery and want to see a GP. But there are MANY other allied health and social care professionals who may be better placed to sort out the problem. However, a recent survey in Gosport showed that of the people who phoned up wanting to see their GP, only 9% of them actually needed to see their GP and the rest would have been dealt with more effectively by someone else. We need to get used to the fact that we don’t have enough GPs available for everyone to be able to see one every time they would like to, but there are other professionals who are equally able to help. Another example is that everyone wants to safeguard their local hospital and we tend to have a fixed belief that being in hospital when we’re ill is the best place for us. Actually, especially when we’re older we can receive just as good care at home or in a nursing home and being admitted to hospital adds very little benefit. However, in order to have smaller and therefore more affordable hospitals, we really do have to ensure we have the necessary infrastructure and staffing around community nursing, social care and General Practice. Currently this is not the case and it takes time and investment to grow this workforce.
  13. We need ensure we are training and recruiting the right skill mix of people for the right jobs. This means we need to think at least 20 years ahead with the predictive statistics we have available to us and do some proper workforce planning. We’re are far too short sighted. This will take financial investment now, as stated above, but if we get it right, will leave us with a far more effective and efficient living system in the future.
  14. Our medical, nursing and therapeutic school curriculums therefore need to ensure they are training students for the kind of future we need. We need a complete redesign of some of the curriculums and we need to change the way training is done. As part of this, we need to ensure we are raising good human beings, not just good professionals, with values, culture and great communication skills built into all of the process.
  15. We have to redesign the contracts, as unfortunately without this, some of the behaviour changes simply will not happen. The current contracts across health and social care are the very antithesis of what is needed.  This will take some bravery and leadership, but it is time to grasp this nettle. Without this, we will behave perversely because the incentives driving the system and the nature of competition laws are detrimental to the collaborative future we need.
  16. We can only do all of this together. This means our staring place in all of this is to own up to the fact that in all of the above, we simply don’t know. From the place of not knowing, we can ask great questions, bring our bits of expertise to the table and build a jigsaw. There is expertise in national and local government, but certainly not all the answers. There is expertise in the health and social care clinicians, practitioners and managers. There is expertise in our communities and with people who have lived experience of the various complex issues we face. It is only together that we can face the future. Let’s break out of our camps, our deeply entrenched belief systems and find a new way of dancing together. The future belongs to us all. Together we can.

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Social Movements and the Future of Healthcare

Tweet As the crisis in the Western World deepens, and the growing reality sets in that business as usual simply can no longer continue nor solve our problems, our systems must change the way they view, deal with and hold onto power. The NHS is no exception. If we want a health and social care [Continue Reading …]

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Turning To Each Other

Tweet Here are some excerpts from a speech I gave recently at Lancaster City Hall about how in a time of crisis, we can either turn on each other, or turn to each other (my friend Mike Love gave me that line!). When we turn to each other, unimagined possibilities become the fuel of hope [Continue Reading …]

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The Art of Hosting Good Conversations – Morecambe

Tweet Here is a video about a brilliant couple of days a bunch of us had in Morecambe, talking about how we discover what it is to be healthy and be part of a social movement to improve the health and wellbeing of everyone: Share This:

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We Need to Be Ambidextrous in Solving our Health and Social Care Conundrum

Tweet All this week on the BBC, there has been a focus on the NHS and the crisis we are in – don’t panic Mr Mainwaring…..There is a heady mix of opinions being thrown around – Question Time became quite a furore of ideas and thoughts last night – not enough beds, not enough staff, not [Continue Reading …]

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Wake Up to Our Health Crisis

Tweet It’s all over our news today – our health is in a real mess, and this is our wake-up call moment – we really do need to take it seriously. It’s all very well us protesting about the under-funding and under-recruitment in our NHS (and we are right to do so), but we can [Continue Reading …]

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Here we go round the NHS Mulberry Bush!

Tweet One of my favourite songs as a 5 year old was ‘Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush’. I’ve been involved with the NHS for 17 years now and every winter, we do this same dance around Emergency Departments and the total mess that surrounds hospital admissions, discharges and an ever growing list of [Continue Reading …]

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