Hospitals in Scotland are facing a growing staffing problem, with many struggling to fill vacancies for doctors and nurses, health leaders have warned.
While workforce numbers in the NHS have increased in the past year, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) Scotland yesterday warned the levels were still lower than four years ago and more than 1,700 posts for nurses were still vacant.
In a joint statement with the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (RCPE), they warned the situation was threatening the Scottish Government’s plans for a genuine seven-day health service, with more staff working in hospitals at night and weekends, making it easier for patients to be seen when needed.
The latest workforce statistics revealed there were 134,171 whole-time equivalent (WTE) staff in place at the end up
September – up 1.8 per cent since the same time last year and
0.6 per cent higher than in June.
Nursing and midwifery staff rose 2 per cent in a year to 57,368, while consultants were up 2.4 per cent to 4,584.
However the figures, published by Information Services Division Scotland, also revealed large increases in vacancies for both nurses and doctors.
The number of vacant posts for nurses and midwives increased from 1,391 in September last year to 1,785 this year, with 396 posts vacant for more than three months. For consultants, vacancies rose from 143 to 213 in the same period, with 60 vacant for more than six months.
The RCN and RCPE said they backed recommendations hospitals should offer a true seven-day service, but said a review of staffing and resources was needed to ensure the right number of staff and beds were in place to provide the care required.
RCN Scotland director Theresa Fyffe said: “Health boards cut nurse numbers too far in recent years, with around 1,800 posts lost between September 2009 and December 2012. So it’s good news for patients that they are recruiting again, as the continued modest increase in overall nurse numbers shows.”
But she added: “With more than 1,700 nursing posts still vacant, health boards are having to run fast just to stand still.”
Dr Neil Dewhurst, RCPE president, said: “The college is committed to working towards a seven-day service for patients, but there is a risk that this will be little more than a lofty ideal without an increase in the medical and nursing workforce.”
Health secretary Alex Neil said the figures showed staff numbers had grown under the SNP government – up more than 7,000 since 2006. “We now have mandatory nursing workforce planning tools in place across Scotland, and these are working well in helping health boards to plan for the number of staff they require,” he said.
“By using these tools, we can be confident that boards have the right number of staff required to provide the best possible care for patients.”
Other figures yesterday showed a slight decline in waiting time performance. In September, 90.9 per cent of patients covered by the 18-week referral to treatment target fell within this time, compared to 91.6 per cent in July and 91.1 in August.