The head of BMA Northern Ireland’s consultants committee (NICC) has called for more to be done to address workforce staffing gaps in secondary care medical grades after the latest Department of Health workforce stats show 180 empty posts as of December 2020.
It comes as the latest quarterly waiting lists figures show a further increase in waiting times for inpatient and day case admissions as most non-urgent elective care operations continue to be paused due to the pandemic response.
The quarterly Northern Ireland health and social care (HSC) workforce vacancies stats detail that 103 out of the 180 secondary care medical grade vacancies are among the most senior consultant grades.
Commenting on both sets of statistics, NICC chair John D Woods said: “These will not surprise secondary care doctors who have been working with chronic workforce gaps across all specialities for years, which has had a massive effect on driving up waiting lists prior to coronavirus. The pandemic has served to throw this issue into sharp focus as elective care work was paused to facilitate staff redeployment to cope with the COVID-19 response. Regrettably we can now see the knock-on effect of this in today’s waiting list figures.
“Regarding the workforce vacancies stats, it is particularly concerning to see high vacancy rates in specialties such as surgery, anaesthetics, ICU and critical care medicine. These are key specialisms in addressing our spiralling elective care waiting lists and treating COVID-19 patients, where we recently saw a higher number requiring inpatient treatment than the first wave.”
Dr Woods added that the pandemic response has highlighted even more intensively the staffing issues in Northern Ireland.
“Earlier this month in a survey of BMA members working in Northern Ireland, 59% told us staff shortages were affecting their ability to treat patients,” said Dr Woods.
“56% said their mental health and well-being were much worse than compared to the first wave of the pandemic, while 62% said their fatigue levels were higher level than normal. Some 30% said they were now more likely to retire early with 52% saying they are likely to work fewer hours post-pandemic. This, coupled with the legacy of staffing shortages prior to COVID-19, is extremely worrying, and the Department of Health needs to address it urgently. How are we supposed to address our waiting list crisis and deliver HSC transformation when we don’t have enough doctors to treat patients and those that remain are contemplating early retirement due to burnout? It’s not fair on our health service and it’s not fair on patients.”
Dr Woods said more needed to be done to encourage doctors to stay and work in the health service.
“A key element of this will be proper monitoring of workforce levels to take proactive measures before a crisis like COVID-19 occurs again,” said Dr Woods.
“Clinicians should also be fully involved in rebuilding a post-pandemic health service that delivers timely, patient care with the adequate amount of staff. Staff need to feel valued and an important element of this is better workplace terms and conditions, such pay parity with our counterparts in the rest of the UK. The current pension taxation system is also forcing unfair financial penalties on doctors who work extra shifts to cover clinical vacancies and reduce waiting lists. This also needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.”
Notes to editors
The Northern Ireland health and social care (HSC) workforce vacancies December 2020 statistics can be found here.
The latest quarterly Northern Ireland inpatient, day case, outpatient and diagnostic waiting times statistics can be found here.