Future-proofing healthcare amidst the NHS staffing crisis

Phil Kenmore, Head of Health & Social Care Business Development at The Open University


Recent reports on the National Health Service paint a picture of an institution that is crumbling amid the challenges of an ageing population, budget cuts and staff shortages. While the situation at present is concerning, it is also crucial to think about how we can protect healthcare services in the years to come.

The NHS now has the lowest per capita numbers of nurses in the western world[1], with the Royal College of Nursing citing a deficit of 42,000 nurses in the UK. This raises important questions about the future of staffing in the NHS, and suggests that we need to take urgent action in order to preserve and grow the current workforce – or we risk sacrificing the high quality of care patients rightly expect.

Relieving the pressure

Our recent report – Tackling the Nursing Shortage – revealed one in five nurses are concerned that they are not able to provide adequate care, and three-quarters say that staff stress is a significant issue across their organisation.

These issues are leaving one in three nurses unhappy in their current job, with a number thinking of leaving the profession altogether. If all these nurses were to leave, the NHS would be thrown into crisis and patient care would suffer – so it is clear that something needs to be done in order to relieve the strain.

Building support

We need more nurses, and more support for those nurses. That much is obvious. But with the introduction of student loans, the number of people applying to study nursing degrees has fallen dramatically, raising concerns about the future workforce. This may also be exacerbated if Brexit restricts the pipeline of talent into the UK.

So, it is essential that we look to attract new nurses into the profession, both to reduce the nursing deficit and assist with retention of our existing nurses.

The incredible work that is done by our nurses often lies forgotten amid the doom and gloom of the media; they are everyday heroes. Ask anyone, and they can tell you at least one story about how nurses have helped and supported them and their loved ones. Speak to any registered nurse, and they will tell you how rewarding it can be. We need to remind people how gratifying and worthwhile the profession can be in order to attract the next wave of talent.

But we also need to open up new routes to address concerns around salaries and student loans. The new apprenticeship route has huge potential to attract new talent into the profession – it offers the attractive opportunity for them to earn while they learn, and provide support within NHS trusts as they do so.

Opportunities for growth

The apprenticeship route also opens up the profession to a wider talent pool. In the past, those seeking to become registered nurses have had to pursue the traditional university route. But apprenticeships allow progression from healthcare assistant, the nursing associate, to registered nurse – small stepping-stones, rather than one big leap.

By using apprenticeships as a tool for continued professional development – investing in existing workers and allowing them to progress – NHS trusts can retain the workers who enable services to run smoothly, while growing the skills that will help to support the existing nursing workforce.

Once qualified nursing associates will be able to bridge the skills gap between healthcare assistants and registered nurses, relieving the strain on registered nurses, which in turn may help to keep existing nurses in the profession. So attracting and training new nurses also helps with the retention of the existing workforce.

The NHS is the biggest single contributor to the apprenticeship levy – but many financially stretched services are experiencing issues with the associated costs of employing apprentices. By using apprenticeships as a tool for CPD – investing in growing the skills of existing workers, who are already on the payroll – trusts may be able to get better return on their investment.

So, with the existing nursing deficit exacerbated by Brexit and stress edging many existing nurses out of the profession, it is crucial that NHS trusts look for ways to future-proof their workforces.

By using apprenticeships to build talent, trusts can increase the nursing skills available to them, provide additional support to existing nurses and ensure that they can continue to provide a high standard of care in years to come.


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