WOULD you want your child to be a doctor or nurse in today’s NHS? Only a generation or two ago, this question would have been a no-brainer.
Both professions were the kind of careers which young people aspired to, and parents were proud to support. However, if either of my two came to me now and said they wanted to go ahead and become a doctor or a nurse, I couldn’t sanction their choice.
According to research published by this newspaper, Yorkshire faces a £1.2bn black hole in NHS finances over the next five years. The BMA calls this “an impending disaster”. The doctors’ professional organisation has warned that there is “nowhere near the funding required” to carry out the reorganisation of health services under the much-criticised Sustainability and Transformation Plans drawn up under the supervision of Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary.
Why then would I send any child of mine into such a lion’s den? My teenage son or my 11-year-old daughter could come home from school tomorrow and announce that they would like to be a GP or a midwife. What would I say? That there is absolutely no guarantee that the commitment they are prepared to offer would be reciprocated.
In most cases, modern nursing now demands a degree which takes three or four years of hard study and work placement to achieve. Training to become a doctor takes the best part of a decade. It’s a long time to devote to a career that doesn’t deliver the reward it should; not only in terms of pay, but in job satisfaction and quality of life.
Added to the recruitment issue is the matter of retention of NHS staff; untold numbers of doctors and nurses leave our hospitals every year because the pressure to perform life-saving jobs with insufficient resources becomes too intense to bear.
Let’s put the issue in wider terms. If not enough doctors are prepared to stay the course, the problems will only intensify. The BMA suggests that it takes around 15 years from being a medical student starting out at university to becoming a consultant. It is clear that planning the NHS workforce supply and demand is a complicated process which requires investment and vision over decades.
However, like teaching, medicine has become a tainted career choice. It really shouldn’t be like this. In the UK, we have some of the finest specialist centres of medicine and teaching hospitals in the world. We still provide a truly national service free at the point of access. And it is still staffed by dedicated individuals doing their best day in and day out.
The scandal is that most of these individuals are under constant pressure. Punishing hours, inadequate pay, targets and performance measures which shift every few months and then the nagging feeling that the Government just does not understand what it’s like to be on the NHS frontline. It all adds up to a climate of fear and anxiety; what parent would actively encourage their offspring into this world?
And yet we face an impossible situation. If we don’t encourage the next generation to embrace medicine, the shortage will simply intensify. This will make matters worse for those who already work in healthcare, and obviously have a detrimental effect on patient care.
Last year, a Freedom of Information request revealed thousands of unfilled vacancies for medical staff at all levels in the UK. More than two-thirds of hospital trusts and health boards reported that they simply could not persuade people to come and work for them.
These are big numbers to take on board. Between 2013 and 2015, there was a 50 per increase in nursing vacancies from 12,513 to 18,714. At the same time, unfilled posts for doctors rose by a staggering 60 per cent – from 2,907 to 4,669. The only positive thing you could say to a youngster considering a career in medicine is that there would, at least, be plenty of jobs available.
However this glibness misses the point. It is clear to anyone looking at these figures that our National Health Service is in a very sick state indeed. The default solution is to employ expensive locum doctors and agency staff, often recruited from abroad. And while this provides a temporary solution, it is like placing the proverbial sticking plaster over a gaping wound. It’s not investing in those who could offer a dedicated lifetime of work to the NHS.
I implore Jeremy Hunt to look once again at the figures. He’s not listened to the doctors and nurses who tell him time and time again that working conditions are intolerable. He’s not listened to the patients who inform him that they don’t want to see their local A&E closed down, or that their relatives are not being cared for properly.
Let’s hope he listens to the plea of a mother who wouldn’t encourage her child to be a doctor or a nurse for the sake of her life.