Dr. Richard Harris looked around his clinic with despair and anguish in his eyes. After standing there for a few minutes, he walked back slowly to his chamber. When I walked into his chamber, I saw Dr. Harris sitting with slumped shoulders, hands on his head, staring into space. He has been my family doctor for the last thirty years and I have never seen him looking so low. I was worried and on my asking, he said that he might have to shut down the clinic. “The practice is good; in fact I have more patients now than ever before, but no staff to look after them”, he added.
A dedicated professional, Dr. Harris has been an upright and loved member of our community. It was extremely distressing to see him in this state. Members of the community even volunteered to help out at the clinic, but to no avail. Last week, Dr. Harris closed his clinic doors for the last time. What has gone wrong with our healthcare system? Why are dedicated and established physicians downing their shutters or reducing the number of patients that they can see? Where are the healthcare workers?
Healthcare workers have never been more in demand than they are today. A shortage of qualified nurses is forcing more than two-thirds of trusts and health boards across the UK into trying to recruit qualified staff from abroad. According to data from a BBC Freedom of Information request, 69% of NHS trusts are now actively recruiting staff from as far as India and the Philippines, to meet the demand and to fill up these vacancies.
Based on data collected from 106 of the 166 trusts and health boards in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and dated as recent as December 01, 2015, the FOI request has thrown up some very interesting but alarming figures.
- The current nursing vacancies stand at 23,433. This is equivalent to 9% of the total nursing workforce in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
- Nursing vacancies have increased by 50% – from 12,513 in 2013 to 18,714 in 2015.
- Doctor vacancies have increased by 60% in the same period – from 2,907 to 4,669.
- Vacancies for registered nurses in emergency departments across England and Wales stood at 1,265, constituting 11% of the total.
- Similarly, vacancies for consultants in emergency medicine also stood at 11% of the total, translating to 243 vacancies.
- Paediatric consultant vacancies stood at 221, about 7% of the total.
There are a number of reasons why the current scenario with regards to the vacancies in nursing and doctor posts in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The simplest reason is that of demand and supply – the number of posts have gone up, while the number of trainees have not kept pace. Post the 2008 financial crisis, nursing posts were reduced – and thus the number of people opting for nursing as a career also came down. However, now the numbers of nursing posts are on the rise, but it takes time to complete a nursing course and join the workforce. According to the BMA, it takes 15 years for a medical student starting out at university to becoming a consultant. This makes planning the NHS workforce supply and demand a highly complicated process with projections that can change for reasons outside their control.
The other reason is a growing population of older people with complex health needs. This is putting tremendous pressure on the NHS to deliver quality care across the country. The growth in the number of elderly people and the number of healthcare personnel required for their care is not in proportion. This has led to a massive shortage in healthcare staff that is now forcing physicians like Dr. Harris to bring down their shutters.
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