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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A Collaborative Clinical Community 

*Warning – this blog contains swear words (not that I’m usually a potty mouth!)

This last week we had a gathering of clinical leaders around Morecambe Bay – Nurses, Occupational Therapists, Health Visitors, Midwives, Doctors, Surgeons, Physiotherapists, Pharmacists etc. We were gathered from across primary and secondary care to look together at the financial deficit we are facing as a health community across the Bay where we are seeking to serve our population.

The debt we’re facing (a hole of around 38 million of our English pounds!) is no small thing. Most of it is historic and much of it had nothing to do with us. I spent my first eighteen months as a commissioner feeling furious at the government. I wanted to rail against the machine, the injustice of working in such an oppressive, top down and hierarchical system, which feels like being among the Hebrew Slaves in Egypt when they were told to make the same number of bricks with less resource available to them. I felt so angry with the fact that we invest so little of our GDP into health and social care compared to similar countries and when further unthought through policies were dictated from Whitehall, I felt a total rage. It doesn’t help being politically pretty far to the left and working under a regime to which I feel ideologically opposed.

But one day, I realised two things. The first thing I realised is that the government are not going to change their position or policy. Our systems of government are not set up in a relational, collaborative or solutions focussed way. It doesn’t have to like this, but this is the way it currently is. Our systems have become the very antithesis of their purpose. Rather than serve the needs of the people, the people now serve the systems. The second thing I realised was that my anger didn’t achieve anything except to make me feel tired, disempowered and stressed. I had retreated into the less healthy parts of my personality in which I was keeping false joy alive and feeling burnt out in the process.

Truth has the ability to set you free. When we face truth, no matter how painful, it gives the choice of being more free. Facing up to the truth that the government are not about to change their modus operandi and that I was feeling angry and stressed allowed me to step out of rather childish thought processes and step into something altogether more wholesome. It allowed me to step out of a false sense and rather oppressive noun of responsibility and gave me the space to think more creatively about how I am part of a community of people who can respond to the situation we find ourselves in. We can respond (verb) once we step out of the oppressive yolk of responsibility (noun).

So, those of us in clinical leadership may have not created the financial situation, but there are some stark realities for us to face up to. Whether we like it or not, our current ways of working carry much waste, caused partly by the way the finances of the system operate, but also because we have not thought of ourselves as one. There are ways we behave within the system that create more financial problems and do not serve the community as well as we could. And so it is time for us to do what we can, within our gift by being much braver in our approach. I am suggesting that there are three Cs that are vital to our future.

  1. Collaborative

imagesWe need to reimagine ourselves as all being part of a team who are together tackling the health crises we are facing. We know only too well that, as just one example among many, we are failing kids with asthma because we have not joined up our resources or thinking adequately enough. Yes there are major issues with housing, smoking and pollution, but let’s not point the finger or push the problem somewhere else. Let’s use the phenomenal brains God has given us to pull the right people round the table and work out what we’re going to do about it. Let’s change the way we spend our time so that we’re in schools, we’re listening to our communities and we’re partnering together outside of our normal comfort zones to change the health of the generations to come. We know only too well, that if we don’t shift our focus towards population health and work more intentionally with our communities, doing things with them rather than too them, we will never win this battle. We’re not about playing political games. We are about working with our communities to create optimal health for every person no matter who they are or where they are from. We need to be braver, push the boat away from the shore we know and face the uncertain waters of working altogether differently. In my next blog I will explore some of the possible ways we could work differently.

2) Clinical

In order for the NHS to adapt and become sustainable for the future, we must not be afraid of clinical leadership. Our managers have a phenomenal set of skills, which we must draw on, but there is a trust we have amongst the communities we are embedded in that means they will trust us, if we engage with them properly that will allow us to turn this ship in a new direction. We must partner with our managerial colleagues, but be braver about the direction in which we know deep down we need to head in. We have gained so much expertise and trust and this is not a time to waste it or bury our heads. We must be braver and bolder in our vision of what we can really achieve together.

3) Community

iuAs clinicians we must, as many have stated this week, build bridges not walls. There is far too much division, suspicion and competition amongst us. (Here comes the swearing)…..I was in a conversation with a consultant colleague recently and he was relaying to me that another consultant referred to GPs as a “bunch of Fuck Wits”. In a separate conversation, one of my GP colleagues referred to consultants as a “bunch of arrogant Shits”. These kind of attitudes pervade the NHS and have created a culture of dishonour, distrust and division. Honestly! We’re better than this. How are we going to create the new workforce of the future that works across our currently artificial boundaries if we don’t teach them basic respect? This week a patient came to see me because he was dismayed at having to have seen a nurse at the hospital after suffering a significant condition and wanted to check that I, as a doctor, was happy with what he had been told. I could have laughed it off, but I wanted to stand up for my nursing colleague, who actually has far more expertise in this area of medicine than I do. The advice he had been given was perfect and completely in line with the best guidance available. We must not be afraid to challenge attitudes that are antiquated and out of place. More than ever, we need a culture of honour. A culture of honour is one in which we believe the best of each other, speak well of each other and appreciate our brilliantly necessary but differing gifts and expertise. We need to work out how we work effectively together for the best of the people we serve. We need to connect with each other and rehumanise the system in which we work. When was the last time you met as a cross cultural or multidisciplinary team and simply told each other what you love and appreciate about each other and the work you do? If we can’t learn to be more relationally whole, we will continue to work in the midst of serious dysfunction and strife. Come on – amongst us we have some remarkable gifts of wisdom, healing and hope. Let’s build the kind of culture and community amongst us that stands shoulder to shoulder, changes the story in the media and speaks with one voice to the powers that we are about the a new way of working together through relationship not hierarchy and fear. What might we really achieve together? It is this kind of collaborative clinical community that can change the future of healthcare, not just in the UK, but right across the globe.

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The Transformative Power of Listening

Tweet One of the hats I wear is to be the Clinical Lead Commissioner for Maternity Services in North Lancashire and I chair the Maternity Commissioning Group for Morecambe Bay. Over the last few years, Morecambe Bay has been under huge public and governmental scrutiny due to some sad and significant failings at UHMBFT, our [Continue Reading …]

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