Scotland’s NHS is in the midst of a senior doctor retention crisis, the new chair of the BMA’s Scottish Consultants Committee, Dr Alan Robertson has warned following the publication of the latest workforce statistics.
Dr Robertson, a consultant cardiologist in Tayside, has called on the Scottish Government to urgently address this chronic shortage of doctors and make tangible investment in core NHS staff, instead of spending millions of pounds on temporary solutions such as locums to plug gaps in the system.
Yesterday’s official workforce statistics showed that there are 436 vacant consultant roles across Scotland – 7% of the senior doctor workforce. However, previous BMA Scotland research suggests that there are substantial numbers of vacancies which are not included in official figures, and the real figure is likely to be much higher.
This year has also seen spending on agency medical staff increase by 16% – or nearly £15m – again suggesting filling posts permanently is a major challenge.
Speaking as he takes up his new role as committee chair, Dr Robertson said: “Despite a decrease in figures from this time last year, vacancies among the senior workforce are still worryingly high, and data shows around a 16% increase in agency spend – that’s almost an extra £15 million being spent on locum doctors, suggesting finding permanent staff to fill gaps is proving challenging.
“Once again, we will most likely hear that NHS staffing levels are at a record high – but saying this to staff on the ground who are depleted, exhausted and facing burnout is incredibly demoralising.
“A BMA Scotland FOI carried out earlier this year suggested the actual consultant vacancy rate was 15.2% – significantly higher than what the official figures say, and to put it into context, enough senior doctors to staff an entire hospital. I cannot be clearer when I say the impact of these on-going vacancies on staff left working in the service is profound and there should be serious concerns over their wellbeing.
“The consultant workforce has been stretched to its limit over the past two years and staff shortages are affecting the ability of doctors to deliver the high-quality patient care they strive for. Not only that, but it is also affecting the high-quality training of junior doctors we want to deliver. The workforce is running on empty: there were reports of widespread burnout and an array of workforce and workplace pressures long before the pandemic hit. This, in conjunction with poor pay rises and a punitive pension tax regime, has led to many consultants considering their future – which will clearly only make things worse for patients and lengthen already spiralling waiting times even further.
“We need serious steps to be taken in Scotland to make working as a doctor an appealing career choice, and both government and employers need to show that staff are valued. That means a real focused drive on not only recruitment of new staff but also crucially retention of the current workforce – through improved work-life balance, and a concentrated effort on improving the mental and physical wellbeing of staff.
“We have to focus on all aspects of reward – ensuring doctors, who have suffered years of real-time pay cuts, are paid fairly with acceptable pay awards in line with inflation and addressing once and for all the pension taxation issues at both Scottish and Westminster levels.
“My predecessor, Dr Graeme Eunson, said six months ago if his successor was repeating all of this in a year’s time then NHS staff have been failed. We may well be there already.”
Notes to editors
BMA Scotland’s FOI data for vacancies took into consideration posts that are temporarily filled by locums, posts that have not yet been advertised, and posts that have remained vacant for so long they are no longer being advertised. The official figures released by NES for the Scottish Government do not account for any of these vacancies.