Health bosses have admitted the use of expensive locum doctors to fill specialist vacancies in peripheral parts of Northern Ireland like the Western Trust is a “short-term fix” and a long-term solution is still some way off.
However, cross-border and inter-Trust collaborations as well as “attraction” and “recruitment strategies” are being deployed to try to resolve the problem.
Personnel chief at the Western Trust Ann McConnell said the Trust was taking steps to address one of its “biggest challenges”.
Addressing the Stormont Health Committee she said: “One of our biggest challenges is our medical workforce, and the Department is very aware of the issues that we have there.
“We are working with the Health and Social Care Board and the Department to resolve some of the issues that we have. I think that the challenge is that the difficulties that we are experiencing are happening now and that the solutions are a little bit off in terms of the planning piece.
“Being able to deliver all the solutions that we need right now means that we are having to look at other things. We are looking to our cross-border colleagues; we met the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland this week.
“We do training grades with it in the South West Acute Hospital. We are looking at whether we can get postgraduate level doctors onto our rotas to fill some of the middle grades. That would be a very welcome development.
“We are looking at solutions, and I suppose that the trust has to take some responsibility for trying to find some of the solutions. That is what we are doing.”
Health Committee Chair Maeve McLaughlin remarked: “Equally, the example was given that there was a £10m cost last year for locums in the Western Trust alone.”
To this McConnell’s colleague at the Northern Trust Clare Duffield said: “I can provide some examples or thoughts on whom we are looking at, medical workforce shortages in particular.”
“First and foremost, as you mentioned, we have to ensure the continuation of services, so the short-term fix is, obviously, through the use of agency and locum doctors in the absence of a pipeline of candidates coming through.
“However, there is an example where the Northern Trust and the Western Trust have worked together and collaborated to look at how services are being delivered to take a more regional or geographical approach to address any shortages.
“We are also looking at attraction and recruitment strategies, and I think that it was Damian who mentioned the fact that we try to be creative and look at other ways of attracting candidates, whether through overseas recruitment or a different model.
“For example, in emergency medicine, we are looking at using physicians’ assistants to account for the shortfall there.”