Ageing workforce sparks fears of nursing crisis

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ONE in six Lothian nurses could retire over the next decade – amid warnings that persistent staff shortages could threaten patient safety.

Nurses aged 55 and over accounted for 15.55 per cent of the Lothian workforce last year, compared with just 13 per cent in 2011.

Warnings over this “retirement boom” come against a background of vacancies and recruitment difficulties, as cash-strapped hospital bosses are forced to shell out for costly agency staff to plug gaps in the rotas.

NHS Lothian plans to save cash by cutting use of agency staff but the latest board papers show it spent £412,000 in April on private workers.

Staffing levels in nursing were also classified as “high risk”. Nursing leaders called for efforts to retain older nurses and encourage more students to enter the profession amid warnings the system is “creaking at the seams”.

Lothian Tory MSP and public health spokesman Miles Briggs said: “Nurses at the older end of the spectrum are invaluable to the NHS, and we all benefit from their experience and commitment.

“However, we cannot rely on them forever. Over the next decade a huge number of nurses will be considering their retirement, and that will leave a massive gap on wards. There are already issues with recruitment, and this retirement boom will only make matters worse.”

More than two-thirds of NHS Lothian workers felt unable to do their jobs properly due to lack of staff, according to a recent national survey.

Theresa Fyffe, RCN Scotland director, said: “With so many nurses reaching the age when they may retire, the question is how are they going to be replaced?

“There is already a [national] vacancy rate of 3.6 per cent which shows that health boards aren’t able to find the nursing staff they need. So a lot of nurses retiring around the same time is going to add extra pressure to a system that is already creaking at the seams.”

The supply of new students also needs to be increased to break the “boom and bust cycle” blighting the workforce, she added.

Dr Jean Turner, patron of the Scotland Patients Association, said an over-worked and under-staffed workforce would mean staff and patients were put at risk.

She said: “In the end it is always the patients that suffer. To get the best for patients you need a workforce that has enough staff and enough time to spend with each patient.

“But people can see that nurses are rushed off their feet. It’s not a good outlook for the future to have this ageing workforce and to not have enough staff who want to work in these jobs.”

Professor Alex McMahon, NHS Lothian nurse director, said: “We are well aware of the challenges around an ageing workforce and we have been planning ahead for some time to develop a detailed action plan and contingency measures to support a sustainable nursing workforce, including innovative recruitment programmes, enhanced training for current staff to develop career pathways and working closely with NHS Education Scotland, universities and colleges to ensure more graduate recruitment.”