Collaboration will be key in delivering the NHS Workforce Plan

Dr Denise Baker

Today (5 July) marks the 75th anniversary of the National Health Service. With the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan announced last week, Dr Denise Baker, Pro Vice-Chancellor Dean of the College of Health, Psychology and Social Care at the University of Derby, and Chair of the University Alliance Deans of Health Group, discusses what measures are needed to ensure the longevity of the NHS. 

The long awaited and much overdue NHS workforce plan has finally arrived. The first plan of its kind, the lengthy document sets out a 15-year plan to reform the workforce and “put the NHS on a sustainable footing into the future.”

However, having now digested the detail, there are a few things we need to talk about if the plan is going to have the impact it needs.

Firstly, the quality of professional health education in the United Kingdom cannot be eroded. The requirement of healthcare professionals to hold an approved degree qualification before they can apply for registration is sacrosanct. Routes through to this level of qualification can be innovative but ensuring that healthcare professionals are educated to degree level is vital to the future of the NHS. How we care for patients is continually changing and ensuring that our healthcare professionals have the knowledge and skills to keep pace with this requires the higher-level skills developed as part of degree level study.

Apprenticeships are a valuable alternative providing a real opportunity to improve social mobility and encourage a wide range of learners into health and social care careers. But apprenticeships need to be well planned and supported both for employers and education providers. Delivering a successful apprenticeship takes time and investment. Unless they are well planned, understood by apprentices and employers alike, and the education sector is supported to expand its provision at pace, quality will suffer, and the significant potential of apprenticeships will not be realised.

Apprenticeships have long been part of our innovation and responsiveness to local (and now national) demand at the University of Derby. We were early adopters of the Nursing Degree Apprenticeship and worked closely with the Department for Health and Social Care to develop the first apprenticeship programme. We continue to engage with government to support the development and delivery of apprenticeships and look forward to seeing more detailed plans for how apprenticeships will support the ambition of the workforce plan.

Knowing that the health needs of the UK will continue to rise, we can be confident that we will need more staff and that there will be a wider vacancy gap in the future than we have today. The country therefore needs to raise awareness of routes into healthcare education and training, encouraging more people to consider caring to be a worthwhile and valued career.

To keep pace with demand, the workforce has to continually expand and diversify. To achieve this, there needs to be high quality career guidance available, not just to school leavers. Education providers must work in harmony to offer seamless transitions and local provision, embedding workforce solutions into communities.

Collaboration is essential to delivery of the plan, but more importantly, ensuring that the NHS survives.

Currently, we use broad brush measures to determine whether we have enough staff in the system to meet need – how many nurses, midwives, physiotherapists, doctors do we need to support the population in this region? While this is obviously important, it will not encourage health and social care employers to consider new roles or how practitioners could be deployed in different ways.

Therefore, we need new ways of thinking about the existing workforce and how an increasing workforce need can be met. If we continue to ask ourselves do we need more nurses, doctors or midwives, then the answer will always be yes. If the question is changed to ‘who is best to deliver healthcare and where do they need to be located?’ the conversation takes a different turn.

Finally, strong leadership across the health and social care sector is essential to ensure that the plan is delivered and it meets local need. Across England / the UK, local services need to be shaped to respond to local needs. While there are commonalities, each Integrated Care System (ICS), town, city or borough, and sometimes even each street, has a unique need. ICSs can understand those needs and can work within localities to address them if they have the staff with the requisite skills in the right place at the right time. Sounds simple, but it’s not.

The networks that we have developed at the University mean we are well placed to support the workforce plan locally and nationally but collaboration across health, social care, further and higher education is key to ensure the ambitious plans are realised.

University Alliance members educate one third of all healthcare professionals in the United Kingdom – nurses, midwives, allied health professionals – and have proven themselves to be innovative, flexible and resourceful in doing so. Simulated learning facilities are world leading and offer learners the opportunity to hone their skills in a safe environment before entering clinical practice.

The University of Derby and members of University Alliance look forward to leading the healthcare workforce revolution, but the response to the workforce plan needs to be a combined effort between further education, higher education, employers and politicians alike.

This is a call to arms for the whole country, not just the NHS. We need to raise awareness of opportunities, provide innovative pathways in education and offer an excellent working environment for the ambition to be realised. Collaboration is essential to delivery of the plan, but more importantly, ensuring that the NHS survives.

Further reading