According to a recent newspaper article, the latest workforce statistics obtained by Nursing Standard magazine from the Health and Social Care Information Centre reveal that there are 348,311 nurses, midwives, school nurses and health visitors working either full-time or part-time in England. That is 2,991 fewer full-time posts than when the coalition government came to power. United Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust, Basildon and Thurrock University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and Burton Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust are “plugging gaps” by hiring nurses from abroad. Basildon and Thurrock is looking to recruit 200 nurses from the Philippines and Spain. The international campaigns launched by the trusts reflect a growing trend to search beyond the UK for staff.
According to reports from Whiston, management staff have defended their recruitment policy after it transpired that Whiston Hospital’s A&E was understaffed by around eight per cent. An investigation by the BBC found that 11 of the 131 positions at the hospital’s casualty department remained unfilled. It is believed the shortfall is regularly made up by employing bank and agency staff, in line with other reports from around the country. The revelations about staffing levels, made following a Freedom of Information Act request, have unsurprisingly prompted nursing leaders to criticise current staffing levels. Meanwhile, according to reports from Croydon, a staffing crisis at Croydon University Hospital A&E has left it with the second largest shortfall of permanent employees in the country. That ward has a third fewer permanent workers than its NHS trust believes it needs, with the biggest gap in the supply of nurses. Croydon Health Services NHS Trust employs 151 permanent A&E staff, a shortfall of 48. Only Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals NHS Trust had a bigger deficit of staff, according to official statistics obtained through Freedom of Information requests. The trust stressed holes were plugged with temporary and agency staff, although these typically cost more than full-time employees. It claimed employing temporary staff did not impact on standards of care, unsurprisingly.
Last week, the Royal College of Physicians published its “Future Hospital Commission” report (“Report”). Generalist and specialist care in the future hospital came under some scrutiny in this report, but not in a way which addresses where there can possibly be more Doctors ‘on the ground’. Generalist care includes acute medicine, internal medicine, enhanced care and intensive care. Specialist components of care will be delivered by a specialist team who may also contribute to generalist care. A critical question is, in the average DGH, which of the ‘specialists’ are going to chip in with the acute general medical take. Currently, it is not uncommon for respiratory, gastroenterology and endocrinology physician consultants to run the acute general medical take, but (generally) neurologists and cardiologists do not take part.
“Patients should receive a single initial assessment and ongoing care by a single team. In order to achieve this, care will be organised so that patients are reviewed by a senior doctor as soon as possible after arriving at hospital. Specialist medical teams will work together with emergency and acute medicine consultants to diagnosis patients swiftly, allow them to leave hospital if they do not need to be admitted, and plan the most appropriate care pathway if they do.”
The “24/7″ aspect of ‘Future Hospitals’ is emphasised in various places in the report, for example:
“Acutely ill medical patients in hospital should have the same access to medical care on the weekend as on a week day. Services should be organised so that clinical staff and diagnostic and support services are readily available on a 7-day basis. The level of care available in hospitals must reflect a patient’s severity of illness. In order to meet the increasingly complex needs of patients – including those who have dementia or are frail – there will be more beds with access to higher intensity care, including nursing numbers that match patient requirements. There will be a consultant presence on wards over 7 days, with ward care prioritised in doctors’ job plans. Where possible, patients will spend their time in hospital under the care of a single consultant-led team. Rotas for staff will be designed on a 7-day basis, and coordinated so that medical teams work together as a team from one day to the next.”
Against this is the backdrop of the Nicholson “efficiency savings”, as reported (for example) here in the Guardian:
“The prime minister, David Cameron, his health secretary, Andrew Lansley, and the NHS’s most senior figures have all stressed that the government’s drive to make £20bn of efficiency savings in England by 2015 should not prompt hospitals and primary care trusts to cut services provided to patients. Instead, they say, the money should be saved through reducing bureaucracy, ending waste, adopting innovative ways of working and restructuring services.
Yet the growing evidence from the NHS is that its frontline is being cut, and that NHS organisations are doing what they were told not to do – interpreting efficiency savings as budget and service cuts. While restricting treatments of limited clinical value – such as operations to remove unsightly skin – is uncontroversial, reducing patients’ access to drugs, district nurses, health visitors or forms of surgery they need to end their pain arouses huge concern.”
“The NHS has little idea whether staffing levels at English hospitals are safe, Keogh review panel members have admitted. The report by NHS England medical director Sir Bruce Keogh said data for eight of the 14 hospital trusts examined by the review suggested there was no problem with nursing levels on wards.But when the review teams carried out their inspections they found “frequent examples of inadequate numbers of nursing staff in some ward areas”. In his report Sir Bruce said: “The reported data did not provide a true picture of the numbers of staff actually working on the wards.” The review suggests high level data on workforce levels may present an unrealistic impression of staff available on hospital wards on any given shift. This could lead to NHS trusts drawing false assurances from workforce data while their wards go understaffed. At several of the trusts examined the review team found staff feeling unable to voice their concerns to senior managers.”
Julie Bailey and #CuretheNHS, as well as a number of prominent patient groups such as #PatientsFirstUK, as well as certain regulatory authorities such as the #CQC, have all emphasised the need for ‘safe staffing’ for the NHS to succeed. Prof Sir Brian Jarman has time-and-time-again emphasised the pivotal impact of safe staffing on the hospital standard mortality ratio, as for example in this seminal article from the BMJ in 1999, on page 1517:
“In model A higher hospital standardised mortalityratios were associated with higher percentages of emergency admissions, lower numbers of hospital doctors per hospital bed, and lower numbers of general practitioners per head of population. The numbers ofhospital doctors of different grades were also considered as explanatory variables, but total doctors per bed was found to be the best predictor.”
A symptom of a poorly staffed NHS (in certain autonomous units) would be the system completely falling apart from the strain of increased numbers during the Winter period. A ‘solution’ proposed by NHS England has been some of £2.4 billion surplus will be plugged into a ‘quick fix’ of the situation, and/or hospitals can employ temporary bank staff. This may in the short term attempt to mitigate against a dangerous situation. According to the GMC(UK)’s “Good medical practice” (at point 56):
“56. You must give priority to patients on the basis of their clinical need if these decisions are within your power. If inadequate resources, policies or systems prevent you from doing this, and patient safety, dignity or comfort may be seriously compromised, you must follow the guidance in paragraph 25b.”
Many senior consultants do not wish to speak out safely currently against poor resources. This is reflected in this tweet/comment by Dr Kim Holt:
This further emphasises the need for (all) staff to speak out safely against dangerous clinical care (hence the critical importance of the “Nursing Times Speak Out Safely” campaign.) From the consultant physician front, with the ‘input’ from operations and flow managers, there are currenltly reports of insufficient doctors and nurses being able to see patients in A&E in a timely fashion. It seems that the response to this, while NHS managers have remained consistently immune from materially significant blame for poor clinical care, has been for medical consultants to shunt patients, including vulnerable frail patients, out of A&E into MAU (or even, at worst, medical outlier wards), without patients having ever been clerked. That would be therefore direct evidence of a ‘gaming’ managerial culture directly impacting on how NHS consultants on the ‘shop floor’ have to react in the face of cuts and pressures from clinical demand. Whilst it might be sexy for all politicians and the Royal College of Physicians of London to talk about 24/7, no government minister has gone public to say how they will literally achieve ‘more for less’. Where will the extra money come from? Presumably existing staff will have to do more work for the same pay, and still have to comply with the law governing working (i.e. the Working Time Regulations passporting the European Time Directive).
Whilst their Report is to be welcomed, the Royal College of Physicians have effectively delivered a ‘motherhood and apple pie’ document for Government. It sounds nice and does not even address issues relating to the home patch? One of them will be for the Council of the College to consider whether it wishes for ‘specialist’ Consultants to ‘chip in’ with the acute medical take 24/7. They have after all at some stage passed the Diploma of the Royal Colleges of Physicians (UK)?
Meanwhile, for all the methodological criticisms of Jarman’s work, it can only be assumed that he genuinely wishes to improve the quality of care of NHS hospitals in England, and that he sincerely wishes to prevent the staggering distress of those foci of poor care where evidenced previously in the NHS. His words, on @RoyLilley’s “NHSmanagers.network” blog, could not have been clearer.