Two health boards in Scotland have seen more than 20 per cent of their consultant posts remain vacant, doctors’ leaders have warned MSPs.
Jill Vickerman, Scottish secretary of the British Medical Association (BMA), also claimed that there was “a weekly crisis” in the health service, surrounding staffing for GP out-of-hours care and hospital accident and emergency units.
She made the comments after Andrew Walker, a health economist from Glasgow University, said he was “optimistic” that the NHS was sustainable, arguing the service had “stood the test of time” despite having faced problems from most of the last quarter of a century.
But Ms Vickerman said that doctors were currently facing “some very specific and new problems which are hugely concerning”.
She told Holyrood’s health and sport committee: “We have, in two of the health board areas, over 20 per cent vacancies in consultants – we’ve never seen anything at that level before.
“We have a weekly crisis to deal with in terms of whether or not GP out-of-hours and accident and emergency units are going to be properly staffed.
“We have some significant problems in terms of filling partner posts in general practices. These are at levels we haven’t seen before.”
Mr Walker, however, told the committee he had spent almost 25 years studying the health service and concerns being raised now were similar to those of two decades ago.
He said: “My studying of the health service goes back to 1990 or something like that.
“I would say out of those nearly 25 years, for at least 20, the NHS has been in some form of crisis – people have been talking about how it might not be sustainable, it’s underfunded and gaps are building up.
“You could find almost exactly the same speeches in the 1990s. That’s not to say there isn’t a problem, that’s not to say there are pressures, but it’s to say there always have been pressures.”
Mr Walker said the exception to this was in the period 2002-7 when “the Labour government put resources into the health service at a rate I don’t think we’ve seen before and possibly never will again”.
Overall, he insisted the NHS was sustainable, saying: “It’s stood the test of time so, personally, I am optimistic.”
But Ms Vickerman said the challenges facing the health service had “come together in a perfect storm”.
She argued economic pressures and population changes, which mean people are living longer but increasingly need care for multiple conditions, meant that “we are genuinely seeing on the ground, through our members, a very significant difference in terms of what we have experienced before”.
Ms Vickerman added: “It’s going to continue to get worse unless we have that very honest debate about how we change the way services are delivered.”
In a submission to the committee, the BMA welcomed the protection of NHS funding by the Scottish Government but added that “in reality, this reflects a 0.2 per cent real-terms increase in the NHS budget for 2015-16”.
The BMA said that in May, NHS Dumfries and Galloway had “reported its consultant vacancies were at their highest level for more than a decade, reaching 22 per cent” and that NHS Fife “confirmed that close to 25 per cent of 170 acute division consultant posts had not been permanently filled”.