NHS England must take urgent action to address staff shortages in critical community health services to prevent lengthy waits and to stop ‘storing up problems’ in primary care, NHS leaders have warned.
A new report, led by NHS Confederation and NHS Providers, outlined that staff shortages in the community healthcare sector translate into ‘some of the largest backlogs of care and long waits’.
Vacancies are particularly stark in health visiting, podiatry, speech and language therapy, and community dentistry, it said.
While there is currently no publicly available breakdown of NHS vacancy data for community roles, it said, community provider leaders report ‘significant staff shortages’ in some key services, with one community provider leader reporting a 25% vacancy rate for health visitor posts, while another had a vacancy rate of 30% for podiatrists.
Stark vacancy rates have also been reported for community district nursing, health visiting, AHP roles, speciality registrars, midwives, radiographers, community dentistry and health and care support workers.
The briefing also flagged that 98% of community trust leaders who responded to a March NHS Providers survey strongly agree or agree that current levels of workforce shortages will slow down care backlog recovery.
In a June survey, 76% highlighted retention and recruiting as ‘the biggest challenge’ for their organisation.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, noted that community services are ‘absolutely essential’ in ‘preventing demand on other parts’ of the healthcare system.
‘But to do so effectively they need the right numbers of people in the right roles. At the moment, they are trying to provide services with one hand tied behind their backs,’ he said.
‘Without action we are condemning patients, including young children, to lengthy waits and storing up problems in GP practices, A&E departments and other urgent and emergency care services that could have been dealt with earlier in the community.’
The briefing called for greater national support from NHS England and professional regulators for blended roles that cover the NHS and social are services to ‘help reduce duplication across service’.
It added that these roles would ‘reflect the cross-sector working’ required in service delivery.
However, the authors warned there are ongoing challenges around pay parity within multi-disciplinary teams across the NHS which create ‘considerable complexity for local leaders to navigate equitably with staff’.
The briefing also called for:
- The creation of new roles, or alternative routes into existing roles, such as the development of nursing associate and healthcare support worker roles
- Sharing good practice on developing recruitment partnerships with the further education sector, with national funding to embed the approach.
Siobhan Melia, chair of the Community Network, hosted by the NHS Confederation and NHS Providers, said: ‘The size of the waiting list for community services must act as a wake-up call about the need to take seriously these backlogs of care. These services are not subject to the same political scrutiny as waiting times in hospitals but they are just as vital.’
However, there is no chance of making progress with the backlog unless ‘urgent action is taken’, she added.
It comes a day after NHS figures revealed the elective backlog now stands at 6.7 million people, despite successful efforts to cut down the number of two-year waits.