The future shape of the health and social care workforce – looking ahead to 2030

10 July 2012

Reform roundtable seminar on “The future shape of the health and social care workforce”. Introduced by Peter Sharp, Chief Executive, Centre for Workforce Intelligence.

The NHS is in the midst of a perfect storm of rising and changing demand, rising costs and reduced resources to pay for those costs. As the International Monetary Fund suggested, “rising spending on health care is the main risk to fiscal sustainability, with an impact on long-run debt ratios that, absent reforms, will dwarf that of the financial crisis”. All health systems now need to “bend the cost curve” and recent reforms aim to move to a model of care that is less reliant on hospitals with more care provided in the community and coordinated around the needs for patients. The workforce accounts for between 60 and 70 per cent of costs in health systems, which means that to deliver efficiency in the short term and become sustainable in the long term, reform of the workforce is essential. To explore these themes Reform convened a lunch with Peter Sharp, the Chief Executive of the Centre for Workforce Intelligence. The event was held under the Chatham House rule but these were the headline points:

Time for an honest debate. In past decades rising demand was met by increased resources and particularly more doctors and more nurses. This is no longer sustainable. Given the length of time needed to train healthcare professionals, particularly doctors, workforce planning needs to take place four to five Parliamentary terms ahead. Therefore decisions on what healthcare workers the NHS needs by 2030 need be taken now. Otherwise existing trends of recruitment and training will not enable the flexibility for different models of care to emerge. However there was a concern that despite the needs to think for the long term, short term cost pressures and objectives will shape the choices on the healthcare workforce.

Tactics to improve productivity. Over the last decade the NHS workforce grew by nearly 30 per cent, with the number of doctors rising by 45 per cent. Quality did not keep up with the pace. Improving the productivity of the workforce is therefore essential. Adopting the habits of high performing providers can increase productivity by 20 to 40 per cent. In particular, the best organisations often have a strategic focus on patient value, empowering clinical professionals through autonomy and responsibility, mandatory training in innovation and clinical redesign and active staff performance management. However many NHS employers have been slow to adopt the habits of leading organisations. Moreover there is often resistance on the part of the professions to more rigorous performance management such as performance based pay.

Role shift. A key tactic of innovative providers is reforming the skill mix to maximise the productivity of the highest trained professionals and using different kinds of workers to perform tasks that were traditionally reserved for doctors and nurses. Starting from the patient perspective to understand their actual care needs can demonstrate what skill mix is needed. While in the past doctors were the lead caregivers, care services need to be “demedicalised”. Changing healthcare needs mean that carers and healthcare assistants will need to fulfil expanded roles, with greater focus on multi-disciplinary care teams in place of doctors as solitary practitioners.

Flexibility. The long timescales involved in medical training (15 years from A-levels to consultant status) mean that greater flexibility is needed in training pathways. This is particularly important if the NHS wants to increase the number of generalists over specialists. Junior doctors in particular concerned that moving between specialities would require restarting their training. Flexibility in the training pathway would also need to consider more diverse steps in doctors’ careers rather than a single trajectory to consultant status.

Role of regulation and professional organisations. Reforming the workforce demands a new approach to regulation. Traditional approaches to the regulation of workforce have sought to define and control boundaries between professionals, and thereby limit role shifting and innovation in the delivery of care. For instance the Royal College of Nursing and Nursing and Midwifery Council campaign to extend regulation to healthcare assistants would maintain the roles of nurses and create additional costs. Other Royal Colleges have recognised that more flexible approaches to training and greater focus on team based care needed.

Healthcare is human capital intensive, which means that it is not possible to transform the model of care without reforming the workforce. Such changes will challenge the model of the professions and existing ways of working. The front line needs to lead the way.

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