Staff shortages threaten respiratory care


The lack of progress in addressing staff shortages in respiratory care could mean that people with lung disease are being deprived of access to specialist advice.

This is according to the Taskforce for Lung Health, a group of over 30 charities, organisations and patients looking to improve lung health in England, which has called for an urgent review into current staffing levels as the Covid-19 pandemic subsides.

Back in 2018, the taskforce found staff shortages in pulmonary rehabilitation, nursing, primary care, secondary care, and radiology. Today, 71% of respiratory departments still do not have enough staff to manage their workload.

Last year at least a third of people with lung conditions reported that they had treatment cancelled, which has created a backlog of people waiting for care.

“Without extra resources and staff, the respiratory workforce cannot adequately deliver routine and specialist clinics for the many people with lung problems while at the same time being expected to treat acute and post-Covid-19 patients, and run Long-Covid clinics,” said Professor Jon Bennett, chair of the British Thoracic Society, a member of the taskforce.

“This means patients with lung disease are being deprived of access to the specialist expertise they need.

“The UK needs a larger and better funded respiratory workforce, including consultants, nurses, physiotherapists, physiologists and all other essential, skilled professionals, to cope with the ever-increasing demand for care.”

Alison Cook, chair of the taskforce for Lung Health, said: “It is no secret that outcomes for patients with lung conditions have not improved for over a decade, and that we urgently need to see a workforce equipped to support the millions of people in need. We must now see an immediate review into the current shortages in the respiratory workforce, and the potential long-term impact of Covid-19 on staffing levels across the sector – the wellbeing of people living with lung disease depends on it.”

In December 2018, the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP), a member of the taskforce, estimated that an additional 1,000 staff members were needed to meet demand for pulmonary rehabilitation. It has now said that Covid-19 patients who were in hospital in the first wave alone will require almost two million hours of rehab, and approximately 2,300 new physiotherapy posts will be required to address the community rehab needs of Covid recovery within one year.

Rachel Newton, head of policy at CSP, said: “Physiotherapy staff play a crucial role in treating these patients in intensive care and also prove rehabilitation for those suffering from long Covid in the community. This is extra pressure on an already stretched workforce that provides life-saving and life-prolonging rehabilitation for patients with all kinds of lung conditions – conditions that for millions have got progressively worse due the pandemic.”

With around half of specialist nurses expected to retire within the next six years, Wendy Preston, head of nursing practice at the Royal College of Nursing, said he profession needed to attract a new generation of nurses to meet projected demand.

“Specialist nurses play a significant role in supporting patients with respiratory illnesses. If we want to build on the services we provide, we need to have enough nursing staff to provide safe and effective care for patients,” she said.

“The current pandemic has shown the importance of respiratory nursing expertise and we welcome the current work to build on this and develop respiratory support units. It is essential that workforce features heavily in these plans as well as ensuring community and primary care services are developed collaboratively and are equitable.”

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