West Suffolk, Colchester and Ipswich hospitals recruit nurses from Portugal and Philippines to plug staffing shortfall - but spend on agency staff still growing
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Hospitals in our region are increasingly turning to overseas recruitment and agency staff to plug gaps in their workforce.
Mariam Ghaemi talks to those on the frontline in Suffolk and Essex and asks why is there such a shortage of qualified nurses?
The last 24 months have seen all three of the region’s main hospitals launch major recruitment drives in response to nurse shortages.
But, instead of picking up new recruits from training centres across the UK, health leaders and HR bosses have travelled as far as the Philippines to encourage nurses to kick-start their careers in East Anglia.
The unusual tactic, which has seen staff from West Suffolk Hospital and Ipswich Hospital fly to Portugal and Colchester Hospital to turn their attention to Ireland, has attracted attention from the media .
The hospitals have said the recruitment drives are cost effective, with multiple new employees recruited on each trip. In 2014, 23 registered nurses were offered positions at West Suffolk Hospital following an initiative in Porto. They joined 62 other Portuguese staff who started at the Bury St Edmunds hospital in 2013.
But despite the recruitment drive, a recent Freedom of Information (FOI) request revealed spending on agency nurses by West Suffolk Hospital had gone up from £418,424.53 in 2012/13 to £499,255.52 in 2013/14.
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A spokeswoman from West Suffolk said hospitals across the country are increasing the numbers of nurses they employ to meet the safer staffing recommendations made in the Francis report – an investigation into the failures by individuals, tiers of management and regulators at Mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust between 2005 and 2009.
“This is also the case at West Suffolk, where we have employed more permanent staff, including newly-qualified nurses, overseas staff and former nurses taking return to nursing courses, as well as using agency to fill any gaps which arise,” she added.
“During the period covered by the FOI, we also had to open additional capacity at the hospital due to significant increase in demand, which meant we had to use agency staff to help care for the patients in these extra beds.
“Although our aim is to employ as many permanent staff as possible, a portion of our budget will always be used on agency staff as they provide us with the flexibility to safely staff any sudden increases in activity.”
But it is not just West Suffolk that has turned to agencies and nurses from abroad. Colchester Hospital has previously recruited nurses from the Philippines and last year took on about 70 Spanish nurses. The hospital is this week recruiting qualified nurses in Ireland.
Carole Broadbank, associate director of nursing for medicine at Colchester Hospital, said: “We have a severe shortage of nursing staff in general in the UK and are very keen to recruit nurses from within Ireland because of the standard of training and experience they have.”
At Ipswich Hospital, a total of 21 Portuguese nurses are due to start this month. A spokesman for the hospital said despite that recruitment, the hospital was fortunate not to have any chronic shortages of nursing staff – adding that the ratio of nurses to vacancies was low.
“There are always hiccups, but we are quite comfortable in the way we manage our recruitment,” he said.
“We have got a low ratio of vacancies. We have got a great relationship with University Campus Suffolk (UCS) here in Ipswich who do a lot of our students and we guarantee them a job.”
He said the hospital used agency staff rarely and tended to use bank staff, who are employed by the hospital, to supplement the workforce.
But what is the reason behind the shortages?
According to a spokesman from Colchester Hospital, the answer is simple – the shortage of nurses is due to the number of training places going down nationally.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN), which represents nurses and the profession, agrees. The group, which lobbies governments and others to develop and implement policy that improves the quality of patient care, say between 2010 and 2013 there were repeated reductions in the number of places on nursing degree courses.
They claim that although the cuts have been partly reversed this year by Health Education England, hospitals are still faced with a smaller pool of newly-qualified nurses due to the fact that each nurse requires years of training.
Speaking last month, Dr Peter Carter, the RCN chief executive and general secretary, explained: “Overseas nurses have always provided a valuable service to the NHS – but cuts to student places, poor morale and short-term planning mean that now hospitals are forced to pay over the odds to agencies, as they desperately try to fill vacancies.”
Karen Webb, regional director for the RCN, claims the Government has failed to listen to their warnings about cuts to student nurse places.
“There is no shortage of compassionate and intelligent Suffolk people wishing to train for a nursing degree, but the training places cuts have led to chronic nursing shortages in the community and on wards,” she said.
“Across the East of England, thousands of patients are at risk because wards and district nursing services are understaffed. This is a health and safety and a care quality crisis for the country.”
She said counties like Suffolk, which have good hospitals and are excellent providers of nurse education with UCS, should not be experiencing recruitment problems and added the issues meant agency prices need not be so competitive.
Mrs Webb added: “It takes four years for a student nurse to become a fully fledged nurse. Let us hope that the next intake of student nurses will be big enough to place a marker that here in the East, we are quite able to work together to ‘grow our own’ nurses, and reward them with fair pay and a safe working environment.”
Referring to West Suffolk Hospital’s use of agency nurses, Annie Topping, chief executive of Healthwatch Suffolk, said: “Ultimately the hospital must ensure best use of the money that it receives to provide a high quality of care to its patients.
“Our interest is in ensuring that the hospital is providing good quality services for patients and that the experience of patients is positive.
“There are potential issues associated with the use of locum/agency personnel in any service position; we will be actively monitoring the situation and we would urge people to tell us if they are experiencing a problem.”