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Understaffing is putting patients at risk

NHS workers dub staffing ‘unsafe’

Jo Carlowe

Monday, 28 January 2019

Almost half of NHS workers on the front-line say there are not enough staff to ensure patient safety.

In a new survey published by the public service union, UNISON, 45% of respondents directly involved with patient care (6,778 out of 15,134 respondents) said there were not enough staff on their shift to deliver a safe, dignified and compassionate service.

The poll illustrates the effect of chronic understaffing in the health service, with unfilled posts and uncertainty about the future status of many workers having an impact on patients, says UNISON.

The snapshot survey Just Another Day examined attitudes and experiences for staff across the UK during one working day – the 24 hours of Tuesday 18 September 2018.

UNISON is calling on the government to ‘pump significant funds into the NHS to fix the problems caused by years of austerity’.

Some departments were more severely affected than others. Hardest hit were those in acute inpatients where almost three in five (59%; 1,381 out of 2,345) said staffing was insufficient. It was also a serious issue for those in mental health (45%; 996 of 2,203), primary care (41%; 777 of 1,893) and community health (36%; 642 of 1,794).

Concerns about staffing levels come despite the number of bank or agency staff being used on the day. Nearly half of respondents (47%) said their service relied on bank staff on the day of the survey, mainly to fill nursing roles but also healthcare assistant posts, administration and a variety of other positions.

UNISON’s survey also raises other serious concerns. One in seven (14%) of respondents rated the quality of care as “compromised” and one in six (15%) said patient safety was compromised on the day of the survey.

The findings are based on responses from more than 18,000 healthcare staff from across the UK including nurses, healthcare assistants and support workers, students, ambulance service staff, cleaners and porters. The vast majority (90%) worked in the NHS, the remainder from the private and voluntary sector.

UNISON, in its report, outlines a number of recommendations to the government. These include:

  • The NHS must be given a significant increase in funding to tackle the serious cuts to the service brought about by the squeeze on funding. Current resource pledges are not enough to meet patients’ needs
  • Legislation must be introduced for mandatory safe-staffing levels in England and Northern Ireland, building on the lead of Wales and Scotland.

Commenting, UNISON head of health, Sara Gorton, said: “This survey shows the extent to which crisis level staffing has become normal across the whole NHS. These are long-term, systemic factors not being properly addressed. The government must give the system the funding needed to tackle these issues. But hearteningly it also shows the dedication and compassion these hard-working committed staff continue to show at the most trying times.”

Dame Donna Kinnair, acting chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, responding to the survey, said: “Politicians cannot ignore this warning from thousands of NHS professionals. Nursing staff feel pushed to the brink but it is patients who pay a high price when we can't provide the care they need.

“Promises to tackle the systemic workforce issue in England haven't yet materialised. This is a further reminder of the urgent need to bring tens of thousands more people into nursing with real investment and agree a new law in England on safe staffing levels.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson told OnMedica: "We want the NHS to be the safest healthcare system in the world and record numbers of dedicated NHS staff make sure that patients receive excellent care. We are supporting them by opening 25% more training places for doctors, nurses and midwives, giving a significant pay rise to over a million staff, and listening to the issues that matter to them.”

“As part of our Long-Term Plan for the NHS, backed by an extra £20.5bn a year, we will launch a Workforce Implementation Plan later this year, to ensure the NHS has the staff it needs both now and in the future.”

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