'Perfect storm': NHS facing imminent staffing crisis, study warns

Shortage of doctors ‘could leave the nation’s health vulnerable to future crises’, says IEA report

Peter Stubley
Tuesday 27 October 2020 07:28
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The future of the NHS

The NHS faces an imminent staffing crisis in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic due to a shortage of doctors, a study has warned.

Importing doctors from abroad will be "essential" over the next decade to meet rising demand from an ageing population, according to the report from the Institute of Economic Affairs, a free-market think thank.

However this is likely to be only a short-term solution as it is predicted that the international market for doctors will become "fiercely competitive" by 2030.

Meanwhile Brexit and the end of free movement will impose a barrier to entry for EU doctors, who will be required to pay for a work visa.

The NHS may also see a reduction in resources in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic if the government seeks to reduce the public debt.

"A perfect storm could be forming around the NHS," warns Mark Tovey, the author of the report for the IEA.

"The fallout from the pandemic threatens to increase the demand for health services at the same time as reducing the resources available to fund it.

"Shortages of PPE and ventilators have overshadowed shortages of doctors during the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet when normality returns and the NHS is swamped by a backlog of cases, the latter could be thrust to the forefront of public debate."

The UK ranks 27th out of 36 OECD countries for number of physicians with 2.8 per 1,000 population, according to World Health Organisation data.

Over one-third (37 per cent) of doctors in the UK qualified abroad, a higher proportion than Australia, Canada, US, Germany and France.

Yet in England there were still over 9,000 full-time equivalent job vacancies for doctors last year, with 90 per cent of those postings filled by agency or bank staff.

The NHS in England entered the pandemic with a 17 per cent shortfall of emergency medicine consultants and a 9 per cent shortfall of respiratory medicine consultants, according to official statistics.

The study warns that a shortage in specialist fields "could leave the nation’s health vulnerable to future crises that disproportionately demand the expertise of consultants from one or two fields of medicine."

Mr Tovey suggested that the UK could solve doctor shortages by scrapping laws preventing suitably trained non-medics from filling gaps in the workforce.

The NHS could also alter salaries to “re-direct” junior doctors from massively oversubscribed specialties such as neurosurgery to emergency medicine and psychiatry, he added. 

“Currently, the law prevents many dedicated health professionals from stepping up and lightening doctors’ workloads, simply because they do not have the correct job title," he said.

"At the same time, thousands of biology graduates are ending up on the scrapheap of unemployment, when they could be fast-tracked into frontline clinical roles.

“It's high time the NHS kicked out the jobsworths and upskilled its brightest and best, to bring down cancer waiting times, tackle the crisis in mental health and abate the looming global doctor shortage.” 

The government said that there were currently over 25,000 more doctors in the NHS workforce compared to 2010 and claimed that a record number of medical students were in training after school places were boosted from 1,500 to 7,500.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Thanks to the hard work of NHS staff our NHS was not overwhelmed during the first wave of Covid-19, and the NHS continues to receive the support it needs. There are now record numbers of staff, including 2,119 more consultants, 13,718 more nurses and 7,810 more doctors than last year, with thousands more on the way following our expansion of medical school places and record numbers of people starting nursing courses.

“This government is delivering on its commitment to have more people on the frontline of the NHS by doing everything we can to attract and retain our brilliant NHS staff, grow the workforce and make the NHS the best possible place to work.”

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