Tech is not enough: NHS staff shortages could derail Long Term Plan

A joint report published today by the King's Fund, the Nuffield Trust, and the Health Foundation, Closing the gap, highlights the growing shortage of staffing in the NHS, and associated difficulties in achieving the goals of the NHS Long Term Plan.

The majority of the shortfall is in nursing and general practice. The authors of the report show the need for decisive actions to avoid nurse shortages nearly doubling to 70,000 and GP shortages close to tripling to 7,000 by 2023. These shortfalls would make it impossible, they argue, to make the improvements envisaged in the Long Term Plan to both general practice and access to mental healthcare.

Closing the gap recognises that the use of technology - alongside team-based approaches, and changes in practice - has the potential to improve the quality of, and access to, care in all settings and reduce pressure on staff. However, it suggests that technology gains are frequently realised in the longer term, and that productivity is prone to decline in the early stages. Some digital innovations, such as symptom checkers, if poorly designed or lacking in rigorous clinical evaluation, can put patients at risk and increase the load on health systems.

Moreover, the authors emphasise the need to invest in training frontline staff in the use of new technology. Analytical skills will be particularly important. Current progress, it says, is much too slow, and a shortage of investment in skills developments is sending a powerful, negative signal about the NHS’s commitment to its people and their career development. The report recommends a fourfold increase in the staff development budget.

Michael Johnson-Ellis, Managing Director of Healthier Recruitment, a healthcare recruiter, said: "The NHS has historically never focused on non-clinical skills. Long-term, it is vital that measures are implemented which ensure skills can be pipelined effectively to allow the NHS to take advantage of the latest technology and improve patient outcomes."

In order for the NHS to benefit fully from technological advances, there is a need for changes to professional regulatory requirements and academic curricula, as well as providing training to current staff and cultivating a culture of lifelong learning. There will be a need for a whole new cadre of clinical and analytics staff to analyse and interpret the growing body of clinical and other data and drive service improvement. The current deficit in analysts and analytical capability undermines the potential benefits of the data that is collected.