The NHS is experiencing a staffing ‘roadblock’, with more vacancies than there are candidates. It’s a long-standing problem caused by a multitude of factors – from Brexit to public sector pay policy – many of which are out of the control of local NHS organisations. However, there are areas that can be influenced by thinking differently about how, where and when staff are deployed in some areas.
In this article, Zoe Blake, CEO of XenZone – the UK’s largest provider of digital mental health services – describes how her organisation is tackling recruitment differently – and the benefits it is experiencing as a result
We hear much about how tech can help us deliver new services, or provide care in new ways, but not as much about its potential to radically change how health staff work. At a time when healthcare recruitment is at a crisis point, this is the time to be innovative about working models.
Last month a group of MPs on the public accounts committee (PAC) warned that the NHS is on course to ‘rapidly reach crisis point’ unless action is taken to fill the incredible number of staff vacancies – currently running at 100,000. In its NHS financial sustainability: progress review, published earlier this month, the PAC highlighted that staffing shortages represent the ‘biggest threat’ to financial stability in the NHS.
Difficulty with recruitment is being seen across most parts of the NHS; while the number of hospital-based doctors has shown modest growth, The Health Foundation’s annual report reveals that the number of GPs has fallen by 1.6 per cent over the year to September 2018, and that numbers of nurses and health visitors working in community health services have continued their long-term decline, falling by 1.2 per cent.
In mental health 2,000 staff a month are leaving an NHS post in England. The recently published NHS Long Term Plan warns that immediate action is needed to prevent workforce ‘roadblock’, and encourages the NHS to become more flexible and responsive to changing needs of a modern workforce.
So the question is: what can be done differently now and in the future to attract more staff back into the NHS? If the new ambitious and bold Long Term Plan is to be delivered, what can be done differently to deliver a vision of better access against this staffing backdrop?
Tech innovation has been widely recognised as an area that can provide some of the answers as it has the power to transform healthcare provision in many ways. In mental health – our area of expertise – online therapy is now fairly commonplace, with a strong evidence-base of positive outcomes. As pioneers in new online models of care, we have – in parallel – also needed to create new models of working.
The benefits to those using digital mental health services are clear: more accessible care that provides true early intervention, more relevance to the way we live and support that is less intrusive and stigmatising than traditional, face-to-face models are sometimes perceived to be. However, less has been said about the benefits to those working in healthcare.
A tech-enabled workforce has the potential to be highly flexible – allowing people working in the field to live the way they want to, rather than forcing them into rigid, outdated staffing models. Tech innovation can allow your workforce to be geographically agnostic, acknowledging that supply doesn’t have to be close to the demand, and negates the need to live in expensive areas or commute long distances.
This is not to say that tech-enabled working is not without its challenges; hygiene factors include good connectivity (which isn’t a given in some parts of the country) and rigour around data security. As an employer of a remote workforce it’s key to consider the potential impact of isolation on your staff, as well as how to maintain quality and the speed of decision-making.
At XenZone the vast majority of our people work from home, or remotely, and we use technology to deliver services and also to provide dynamic staff communication, supervision and management in secure virtual team channels. We make significant investment in training and are constantly seeking new ways to use technology to create online communities within our organisation.
The results speak for themselves. We employ over 150 mental health workers to deliver our online services, which are commissioned by over half of NHS clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) across England, as well as private employers. Each time we advertise a new post we receive enough applications from qualified candidates to fill the role many times over – due to the fact that we offer secure employment over the long term, structured to fit around other demands in people’s lives.
In our last staff survey more than four-out-of-five people said they were happy at work and felt they had the flexibility to balance their work and personal lives – and we are keen to push that figure even higher. We are an SME, with tech in our DNA, and an example of how tech innovation can benefit both service users and workforce.
Successfully delivering the NHS Long Term Plan requires innovative thinking in both new models of care AND new ways of working. Embracing digital is not a silver bullet for solving the problem of staff shortages – people need people and human contact, particularly to support their own mental health; however, we firmly believe that tech has a central role to play in the health service’s strategy for fulfilling the aims laid out in the Long Term Plan as part of a whole system approach.