Peter Bennie: Austerity and ageing population straining NHS

Latest figures show that there are more than 400 unfilled consultant posts in Scotland. Picture: John Devlin/TSPL
Latest figures show that there are more than 400 unfilled consultant posts in Scotland. Picture: John Devlin/TSPL
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The NHS is failing to keep pace with the increasing level of demand being placed on it, writes Dr Peter Bennie

Whenever new figures emerge showing patients have been waiting longer for treatment, the strain on our health service that staff experience every day becomes obvious.

Year after year, the level of demand that NHS services face is increasing but the resources invested in the health service are failing to keep pace.

That funding gap is caused by a combination of austerity politics and an increasing elderly population with complex health needs and it comes in the midst of severe difficulties in recruiting and retaining doctors.

The Scottish Government likes to highlight that there are record numbers of doctors working in Scotland’s NHS. Although true, this is only half the picture. We need even more if we are to meet the level of demand on the NHS.

The latest figures showed that there are more than 400 unfilled consultant posts in Scotland, more than 7 per cent of the total workforce, and almost half of these posts have been vacant for more than six months. Junior and SAS doctors’ posts lie empty as well.

Meanwhile in general practice, the BMA’s most recent survey found that more than one in four practices had at least one vacant position.

Every vacant post for a doctor, nurse or other professional means we have fewer staff than the NHS needs. Every vacancy means that those staff who are in post are being stretched further than they should be to meet patient need.

Overstretching staff in this way cannot be sustained in the long term, so more needs to be done to attract doctors and other healthcare professionals to come to work in Scotland and to value those already working here. And ultimately we need to address the question of what kind of NHS we want for the future and whether we are prepared to pay for it.

A recent report by the highly respected Nuffield Trust warned that we face a blunt choice between increasing NHS funding or doing less.

It is long past time for that debate to be had frankly and publicly and for Scotland to decide where our priorities lie.

This is a critical period for the NHS in Scotland and the choices politicians make now will have a profound long-term impact on our ability to meet Scotland’s healthcare needs long into the future.

Dr Peter Bennie is chair of BMA Scotland