Chronic staff shortages in critical community health services are leaving patients at risk of missing out on lifechanging treatments, a report has warned.
The paper, published by Community Network, lays out the key workforce pressures that the community sector is facing, citing the 43% drop in district nurses over the last decade between 2009 and 2019.
“Investing in community services could put us in a win-win situation”
The coronavirus pandemic “exacerbated” the ways that supply of community staff has not kept pace with the increase in demand, leaving some areas in a “critical” situation, according to the report.
It identified concerning backlogs of care in areas such as health visiting, podiatry, speech and language therapy and community dentistry.
Siobhan Melia, chair of the Community Network, which is 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,” she said.
The Community Network has warned in the report that, unless urgent action is taken, the size of waiting lists for community services, which already stands at more than one million people, will continue to rise.
Saffron Cordery, interim chief executive of NHS Providers, said: “NHS leaders are once again raising the alarm over the consequences of the government’s failure to deliver a fully costed and funded workforce plan for the health service.
“Like much of the NHS, vital community services haven’t been able to fill significant staffing capacity gaps and this is now having dire consequences for the health and welfare of some of the most vulnerable in our society.”
Both the NHS Confederation and NHS Providers have called on the government to commit to a fully funded and costed national workforce plan to meet existing and future demand for healthcare, including for vital community health services.
Ms Cordery added: “Investing in community services could put us in a win-win situation, letting the NHS deliver higher quality care while reducing pressure on our urgent and emergency services but we need national action on this- and fast.”
“Frequent political boasts on nurse recruitment will feel particularly hollow for those working in community care at present”
The briefing paper highlighted that the government’s target to recruit 50,000 new nurses by the end of parliament largely relies on international recruitment.
This, it warned, provided little or no benefit to community services, as many overseas recruits were joining hospitals. Therefore, domestic opportunities remain key to boost the sector’s workforce, it said.
Pat Cullen, general secretary and chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing, said: “There is a dire workforce shortage across nursing and it is biting particularly hard in community services.
“The number of district nurses has fallen significantly in the last decade, while demand has soared and care needs have become increasingly complex.”
Ms Cullen said that greater investment in nursing professionals, including fair pay, would “boost retention and patient care standards at the same time”.
She added: “Frequent political boasts on nurse recruitment will feel particularly hollow for those working in community care at present.”
The briefing paper lays out solutions to increase workforce capacity in the sector, including continuing to “expand and develop new roles” such as nursing associates, to attract staff into the community sector.
However, it warned that the recent decision to scrap vocational Business and Technology Education Council (BTEC) courses in health and social care puts an important health staffing pipeline, which attracts thousands of potential nursing staff each year, “at risk”.
The paper described how recruitment was one aspect of boosting the workforce, but retention was equally important.
It said that developing career pathways in community provision can “support the retention of staff working in the community sector”.
The paper acknowledged the innovative working that was taking place at a local level, but said national support was also needed to “meaningfully” address staff shortages.
It said: “As the pipeline of community staff is insufficient to meet demand for services, community providers need a combination of improved national workforce planning and innovative local solutions, supported by national funding and guidance.”