As the government pushes ahead with modernising the health service in England, there needs to be a shift in mindset around attracting and retaining a skilled IT workforce in the NHS, according to MPs and insiders.
When announcing the leadership of newly-formed digital strategy unit, NHSX yesterday (4 April), health secretary Matt Hancock talked about his intentions to make the health service a destination workplace for IT professionals.
“If you’re an innovator and you want to serve our society, I want to welcome you to join the growing band of health tech pioneers at NHSX who are on a mission to harness technology to save lives,” said Hancock.
A wider IT recruitment exercise will kick off in the summer to support the ambitions of digital strategy unit NHSX. However, concerns have been raised over the health service’s ability to attract and retain staff.
A report by the Commons select committee on NHS financial sustainability, released this week, stressed that staffing shortages present a major challenge and there is little sign of the shortfall improving. And if work and residency statuses are impacted by Brexit, the situation may get worse, it noted.
There are 565,082 non-clinical roles in the NHS excluding general practice, which represents about 45% of the overall workforce. IT, digital and support represented the second largest level of vacancies in 2018, just after nursing.
The Department of Health and Social Care is expected to write back to the committee by July to explain how recruitment and retention issues of NHS staff will be addressed and reflected on the workforce strategy.
Last summer, NHS England launched a campaign dubbed We are the NHS to recruit more people into the workforce. The initiative aims at making the health service an attractive option for technology professionals, with opportunities to “develop their skills and use state of the art equipment”.
According to Marc Farr, director of information at East Kent Hospitals, there needs to be a shift in how IT and digital roles are “sold” to potential candidates.
“There are more roles within the NHS than you might have thought,” he said. “You may need to point that out to people because when I was 20, I would have thought it was a place where doctors and nurses worked, maybe there was someone on reception.
“I think young people wouldn’t think necessarily that the NHS would be somewhere to work in. But you’re doing something quite altruistic because you’re coding something that’s going to help patients directly, and you can work wherever you like.”
Farr added that if a professional has a reasonable pay band within the NHS, then pay can also be good.
“In places like Kent or the Southwest, people who work in the NHS are relatively well paid and have good job security,” he said. “I would suggest that it’s quite a good career to consider, but I don’t think young people would realise that as the first thing that may come to their mind is doctors who are often foreign, or quite old admin staff.”
UK IT professionals need to be shown that in order to use their digital skills, they don't necessarily need to be working at a London startup or a digital agency, said Farr.
“They could be using all of those skills in the NHS because we might want our doctors to see a patient through their mobile phone instead of coming into hospital, we might want to predict their outcomes in real time,” he said.
“If you’re relatively young, you wouldn’t realise that those types of roles existed in the NHS. I think they would see it as this dry, public sector that didn’t have space for people to work in jeans and do interesting things using Apple devices.”
Read more about NHS IT
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Focusing purely on IT as in networks and servers misses the point when it comes to advertising an NHS career to technology professionals, said Farr, because work in the health service includes a range of interesting projects around areas cut as artificial intelligence, machine learning and big data.
In his recruitment exercises, the director will advertise that his team will be involved in projects including use of artificial intelligence (AI) for cancer detection, as well as work to try to reduce domestic violence by linking hospital data with police data.
“I will give examples of exciting research that we’re doing and hope that would encourage people to consider joining the NHS,” said Farr.
According to the IT director, the list of interesting projects potential candidates could be involved with is extensive. As part of the business planning process at East Kent, Farr’s team is currently involved with a project for Kent and Medway around centralising stroke services for procedures such as thrombectomy and thrombolysis.
“We’ll be doing a lot of analysis looking at things like how many people had a stroke last year, how many of them were actual strokes or mimics of strokes,” he said. “Based on that, we can plan where we would need those services and how many staff we need. That involves a great deal of data analysis.”
Despite the opportunities and low staff turnover in his region, it had been tough to recruit the professionals Farr needs. He said he has a “really good workforce”, but if one of his analysts leaves, it will take him up to two years to get someone back to that level.
To work around the challenges, Farr does a lot of work with local universities. He is also trying to recruit people into placements, internships and apprenticeships as well as full-time jobs.
“Any way I can get people in, who are quite young and bright, just to try stuff out, these are the people I think I can recruit into full-time jobs at some point,” said Farr, adding that in the recruitment exercise, a key point to raise is that professionals can get a more purposeful career in the NHS.
“If the choices were doing programming within the NHS or doing programming within a bank, then working for the NHS would feel much more fulfilling hopefully to a lot of people.”