The Royal College of Physicians (RCP) is warning that a combination of a rapidly ageing population and a lack of NHS workforce planning means we are sleepwalking into an avoidable crisis of care for older people.
Unless government commits to publishing regular assessments of the number of staff needed to deliver care, the NHS will be flying blind on staffing.
New analysis by the RCP shows there is the equivalent of just one full time geriatrician per 8,031 people over the age of 65 in England. The RCP’s data, pooled from its own census of physicians alongside population data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), shows the NHS is woefully underprepared to cope with an aging population.
The extent of workforce shortages ranges across the country. The East Midlands fares the worst with one full time geriatrician per 12,561 people over the age of 65, but figures across all regions are stark, with the most well-resourced area, Central and North East London, having one full time geriatrician per 3,254 people aged over 65.
The NHS is drastically short of staff across all services and specialties, with the lack of geriatricians just an example of where a lack of planning leads. The ONS estimates that by 2040 there will be over 17 million people in the UK aged 65 and above, meaning 24% of the population may potentially require geriatric care. In addition, many of the doctors providing geriatric care now will soon be requiring that care themselves. With 48% of consultant geriatricians in England set to retire within the next 10 years, we could be on the threshold of a dramatic drop off if we don’t act now to retain as many of them as possible.
Despite these trends, there is currently no publicly available data on the number of staff the NHS needs to train now to meet future demand for care. That’s why the RCP, along with over 100 medical organisations, is supporting an amendment to the Health and Care Bill which would require the government to publish regular, independent assessments of the numbers of staff the NHS and social care system need now and in future. The amendment, tabled by Baroness Cumberlege with support from former NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens now Lord Stevens of Birmingham, will be debated in the House of Lords this week.
Andrew Goddard, president of the Royal College of Physicians, said: “I have dedicated my career to working in the NHS – a service that I am fiercely proud of – and yet it scares me to wonder what might happen should I need care as I get older. There simply aren’t enough doctors to go round, not least within geriatrics.
“The workforce crisis we’re facing is largely down to an astonishing lack of planning. All successful organisations rely on long-term workforce planning to meet demand and it’s absurd that we don’t do this for the NHS and social care system. The government needs to accept the amendment put forward by Baroness Cumberlege and make workforce planning a priority.”
Dr Jennifer Burns, president of the British Geriatrics Society, said: “These figures show very clearly the current nationwide shortage of geriatricians – a situation that will only get worse with the predictable rise in the numbers of older people across the UK needing healthcare.
“It is absolutely vital that these fundamental issues around the recruitment, retention, development and support of the workforce are addressed, and that there is a properly-resourced strategy for future needs. The British Geriatrics Society stands with the RCP in strongly supporting the amendment to the Health and Care Bill.”