The NHS – celebrating its 73rd birthday today – could be on the cusp of a serious shortage of doctors as pressure for part-time and hybrid working grows and senior doctors retire.
President of the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) Andrew Goddard has warned that the health service faced a “Catch-22 situation” in which current staff shortages meant that requests to go part time were difficult to grant. He added that growing demand for hybrid working meant the NHS had to “find a way” to take this onboard and retain staff.
A college survey found that more than half of trainees entering the NHS were interested in working part-time and more than a quarter of senior consultant physicians expected to retire within three years. Most of those respondents who expected problems cited “not enough medical staff” as a reason.
The college called on new health secretary Sajid Javid to “give the NHS the best birthday present it could ask for – more capacity”. This would ideally entail a doubling of medical school places to avoid medical staff shortages worsening. There should also be increased funding for social care and action to address health inequalities, which would reduce demands upon the NHS.
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“It is right that we should celebrate the achievements of healthcare staff during the pandemic as we mark the NHS’s birthday,” Goddard said. “But the pressures we have faced have been greater than they needed to be because of existing staffing shortages. If we do not address this problem we will have much less to celebrate in future.”
He said that there was a “wider cultural shift” towards flexible working. Doctors were seeking part-time arrangements for reasons such as caring commitments and good health.
Nearly half of doctors (43%) have not reverted to their original working pattern at the end of the “most challenging year in the NHS’s history”, according to the RCP’s survey, with well over half of respondents (57%) now working from home at least some of the time. More than two-thirds (67%) said working from home had improved their work/life balance.
Doctors said they would like this shift to more remote working during the pandemic to become the norm. More than 60% (72% of trainees) wanted opportunities for remote IT access, online meetings and remote working to be available in the future.
Interestingly, the same proportion of those who wanted to work more flexibly thought this would be difficult or impossible (36%) as thought it would be easy (35%).
Goddard said: “If a majority of trainees coming into the system are keen to work part-time, we need to find a way to make that happen to keep attracting people into the profession and retaining them,” he said. “The NHS has recognised that and wants to offer flexible working. But it is stuck in a Catch-22 situation where it cannot do the very thing needed to attract more staff because it doesn’t have enough staff at the moment.
“Meeting the complex needs of an ageing population, let alone another pandemic, will be all but impossible if we do not expand medical school places now to train more doctors, invest in social care and address the inequalities that create and worsen ill health.”