NHS bosses are deliberately avoiding filling vacant positions for up to a year in a bid to make savings, MSPs have been told.
The public spending watchdog Audit Scotland said the move was one of a range of ways that health boards could try to reduce their spending.
Official figures showed that at the end of June the NHS in Scotland had a shortfall or more than 470 consultants and more than 3,200 nurses and midwives – with 8.5 per cent of all consultant posts and 5.2 per cent of nursing and midwifery jobs lying vacant.
The equivalent of almost 230 consultants’ jobs had been unfilled for more than six months.
In its latest report on the state of the NHS, Audit Scotland said that while the health budget rose to £12.9 billion in 2016-17, rising operating costs meant boards had to make “unprecedented” savings of almost £390 million to break even.
MSPs on Holyrood’s public audit committee questioned the spending watchdog on how that was achieved.
SNP MSP Colin Beattie said: “One thing I was concerned about which has come up in previous reports is a proportion of these savings were generated in some boards by delaying filling posts.
“I know there is a problem in getting people to fill posts but is there any indication of deliberate delays?”
Kirsty Whyte, an audit manager with Audit Scotland, told him: “Yes, that’s just one of the measures, that is one of the ways that boards are trying to make those savings.”
She added this had taken place “not just in the past year but in previous years as well”.
Ms Whyte said: “There’s a range of ways boards are trying to make savings around non-recurring elements, some of it has been delaying filling posts until a few months on, a year on, to try to make those savings.”
Labour health spokesman Anas Sarwar said the evidence they heard “reveals the scale of the problem in our health service after a decade of SNP mismanagement”.
He stated: “With patients waiting longer and targets being consistently missed, it cannot be right that NHS boards are effectively unable to afford to fill vacant positions.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat health spokesman Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP said: “It’s appalling that we have got to a stage where NHS boards are so stretched that they’re having to leave positions unfilled just to scrape together enough funds.
“This is bad for patients and bad for NHS staff.”