Poor workforce planning by NHS HR functions has led to a rise in medical staff vacancies, unions and experts have claimed.
Figures released by the NHS Information Centre revealed vacancy rates for doctors and dentists increased by 1.6% to 5.2% between March 2008 and March this year, while nursing vacancies rose from 2.5% in 2008 to 3.1%.
Medical employer groups and unions told Personnel Today workforce planning in the health service had been too “short-term” focused, causing gaps in staffing provision.
Sian Thomas, director of NHS Employers, admitted some trusts had “got it wrong” with their workforce planning, but she insisted the rise in vacancies was also due to key skills shortages and HR’s use of temporary workers to create flexibility.
“We could get better at workforce planning and it hasn’t been good in some areas,” she told Personnel Today.
“It’s difficult in the NHS to workforce plan and we need to get better at doing it. If we want to have the right workforce in 20 years’ time we have to plan for that today.”
She highlighted problem areas including midwifery, where a spike in the birth rate was not matched with an increase in hiring midwives, as well as the recruitment of highly skilled nurses. Vacancy rates for midwifery increased from 2.1% in 2008 to 3.4% in March 2009.
Nicola Power, employee relations officer at the Royal College of Nursing, warned that little had improved at trust level since a health select committee report in 2007 labelled NHS workforce planning “a disastrous failure”.
Power said: “In general, planning has been financially driven rather than workforce driven. It has been short-termist. HR needs to heed the warnings and see [these vacancy figures] as the beginning of something and take action now before they are faced with serious shortages in staff.”
The implementation of the European Working Time Directive (EWTD) earlier this month would cause further staffing problems as doctors were forced to limit their working hours, she said.
NHS HR directors have admitted that workforce planning had to be improved, but they insisted it was not solely HR’s responsibility.
Mandy Coalter, director of HR at the Heart of England foundation NHS trust, said: “There is no doubt that workforce planning needs to improve. But HR cannot tackle workforce planning alone. It needs to be championed by clinicians and be seen as a key way of changing services to meet the needs of patients.
“We need to work closely with other functions, such as finance and nursing, to ensure an integrated approach.”
Meanwhile, Ken Baker, assistant HR director at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS trust, added: “Claims that the process is finance driven are perhaps inevitable. But the reality is that we cannot separate efficiency and quality; this is not an ‘either/or’ equation.”
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