THE NHS in Scotland faces challenges in tackling the number of consultant vacancies in hospitals, Health Secretary Shona Robison has said.
Data collected by the British Medical Association (BMA) Scotland shows a consultant vacancy rate of 11.3%, close to double the official figure.
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Separate figures reveal the health service spent £82 million on locum doctors last year, up £18 million on the previous year.
BMA Scotland has called for action to improve the information collected on consultant vacancies so that more can be done to address the problem of recruiting and retaining hospital staff.
Dr Nikki Thompson, chair of the BMA’s Scottish consultants committee, said: “Although the number of consultant posts in Scotland has been slowly increasing, it is not keeping pace with patient need. The problem is further compounded in some key specialities by large numbers of unattractive vacancies, putting unsustainable pressure on those consultants who are in post.
“Consultant colleagues are already working under significant pressure and are increasingly having to cover gaps where vacancies cannot be filled. The reality on the ground does not tally with the official vacancy figures, and the information provided by health boards backs that up.
“We are not suggesting that the official figures are inaccurate, but they don’t show the whole picture.”
Ms Robison said a record number of consultants are in the service, with more than 1,100 more full-time equivalents since 2006.
NHS Scotland faced an “international challenge” to fill posts, particularly in some specialities such as emergency medicine and paediatrics as staff chose to go into other areas.
Ms Robison said: “We need to overcome those challenges. A lot of work has gone into medical banks, for example, mirroring the nurse bank model, to try to help boards to be able to fill the gaps when there’s sickness, when there’s maternity leave, some of the challenges that are there for our health service which, of course, is also treating a record number of people.
“There’s more to do and I’m absolutely determined to look and work with the BMA to see what more we can do to tackle this issue.”
BMA Scotland said official statistics do not include posts where a person has left but the advert for a replacement has not been authorised, or vacant posts which an employer has tried and failed to fill and is not re-advertising.
They also do not reliably capture the use of locums to maintain services, the organisation said.
Ms Robison said she was aware of the difference between the official figures on vacancy levels and those gathered by BMA Scotland, which were “measured in different way”.
She said: “The way ISD (Information Services Division) measure it hasn’t really changed in terms of the level of vacancies since 2006. There’s not been a huge increase in the percentage of vacancies on that measurement. However, it is fair to say we are very aware of some of the vacancies in key specialities and that’s a challenge.
“We have to look at how to make some of those posts more attractive but we also have to tackle one of the biggest challenges, which is too many people turning up at the front door of the hospital that don’t have to be there... and also finding different ways of avoiding elderly people who don’t require acute care to be treated in the community.
“That’s my number one top priority going forward over the next few weeks.”
Ms Robison said the forthcoming integration of health and social care would help to shift the balance and allow more people to be treated in the community.
Labour is preparing to call for a “root and branch review” of Scotland’s NHS during a debate at Holyrood tomorrow.
The party’s public health spokesman Richard Simpson said: “We welcome the BMA’s call for the Scottish Government to work with them to ensure that we know the scale of the problems in Scotland’s hospitals.
“This is yet another example of the Government’s failure to collect meaningful data, which is an act of staggering complacency.
“Our NHS needs radical solutions to end the state of perpetual crisis management which has characterised it for the last few years.
“If Nicola Sturgeon won’t act on the concerns which Labour have repeatedly stated, then perhaps she’ll see fit to act on the concerns of the people on the front lines of this crisis.”
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