The head of BMA Northern Ireland’s consultants committee (NICC) has reiterated calls for more to be done to address workforce staffing gaps among hospital consultants after the latest Department of Health workforce stats show the largest number of vacancies in two years.
It comes as the latest quarterly waiting lists figures show a further increase in the number of patients waiting for a first consultant-led outpatient appointment and for inpatient and day case admission.
The latest quarterly Northern Ireland health and social care (HSC) workforce vacancies stats detail that 118 out of the 265 secondary care medical grade vacancies are among the most senior consultant grades, the highest since June 2019.
NICC chair John D Woods said: “These statistics are concerning but sadly not surprising at all. The pandemic response served to highlight the already existing staffing issues in Northern Ireland. Almost 18 months later, frontline health service staff are still dealing with the pandemic while elective care waiting lists continues to grow. It is particularly concerning to continue to see high vacancy rates in specialties such anaesthetics, ICU and critical care medicine. These are key specialties in addressing the spiralling elective care waiting lists and treating COVID-19 patients.”
The most recent BMA ‘tracker’ survey findings showed that nearly 62% of the doctors surveyed in Northern Ireland reported a higher than normal level of fatigue or exhaustion. Over half had worked extra hours (53.7%), with 23% reporting that these hours were unpaid. A quarter said they were rarely able to take their breaks and 11% reported they were never able to take their breaks.
“Over 42% surveyed said they were now more likely to take early retirement and over 55% choosing to work less hours, with workload and personal wellbeing and pay / remuneration cited as the main reasons,” said Dr Woods.
“It is clear the levels of exhaustion that frontline doctors are experiencing from the pandemic response and existing workload and workforce issues is now being seen in the vacancy rates in secondary care,” said Dr Woods.
“The Department of Health needs to address it urgently and do more to encourage doctors to stay and work in the health service as they are vital in addressing the waiting list crisis and delivering health service transformation. A key element in addressing this will be properly recognising them for their work. We welcome that the Health Minister has accepted the DDRB’s recommended pay award of 3% but this is substantially below what consultants in Northern Ireland believe they deserve in the context of a nearly 30 percent fall in real terms take home pay over the last decade. We are concerned that that money still needs to be found for this limited increase to be applied. Substantial delays in payment in previous years has made secondary care feel their work isn’t valued.
“The current pension taxation system still continues to force unfair financial penalties on doctors who work extra shifts to cover clinical vacancies and reduce waiting lists. This needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.”