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Debate rages around agency staff

Following the government’s announcement that it would clamp down on expensive staffing agencies as part of new financial controls to cut out waste in the NHS, a Suffolk nurse has joined the debate, hitting out at the government for ‘demonising’ nursing agencies that play a vital role in patient care.

Claire Woodman, co-director of Poppy Nursing Services, which provides nurses and care assistants to hospitals across the region, says the claim that staffing agencies “rip off the NHS” is a smokescreen for the real issue. Government cuts and chronic under-funding are, she says, creating heightened demand for emergency staff.

“This is a situation of supply and demand. Hospitals need adequate staffing levels to ensure patient safety and right now there is a desperate shortage of staff in some NHS Trusts and they have no choice but to fill those gaps to ensure that the level of care does not suffer.”

Whilst acknowledging that it is important agencies do not take advantage of the situation and charge astronomical sums, Woodman says it is unfair to “tar all agencies with the same brush.” She provides examples of where her own agency has worked to support hospitals. “We have worked with one hospital which was in special measures due to poor staffing levels and has only managed to turn this around with the help of outside support,” she explains.

Elsewhere, caution has been urged. Peter Carter, Chief Executive and General Secretary of the Royal College of Nursing admits that the NHS “can’t continue spending so much money on short-term staffing solutions,” but adds: “The health service needs to focus on the root cause of this problem, not just the symptoms.”

Mark Porter, British Medical Association (BMA) Council Chairman, says the reliance on agency staff is “a sign of stress on the system and the result of poor workforce planning by government.”

Sarah Heales, Operations Director at Talent HCM, which specialises in helping hospitals manage their agency staff, says she hopes the government’s plans to clamp down on NHS agency staff spend will encourage NHS Trusts to focus more on how they can better manage their own agency staff.

“Companies like ours are offering Trusts the tools to reduce excessive spend on temporary staff now. Hospitals using our neutral vendor solution, where we help manage the whole workforce for a hospital, will reduce their hourly rates across the board,” says Heales.

Talent HCM sits between the Trusts or hospitals and agencies taking a ‘helicopter’ view of demand and predicting peaks and troughs. This provides a focus on driving down shift demand, providing an effective hospital staff bank service and reducing recruitment agency dependence and spend.  “It’s about us working in partnership with the Trust, not just being a supplier.”

Talent HCM uses sophisticated IT models to measure and monitor how demand arises and prevent deficiencies in planning. This information makes it possible to plan the workforce efficiently and avoid sudden gaps, which mean falling back on agencies that can then take advantage by charging high fees.

“I also hope the focus on rising agency spend will mean that Trusts will only use agencies that stick to approved NHS Framework rates. This would mean unscrupulous agencies could not take advantage of the NHS, as Trusts would be prevented from using them.

I think everyone accepts that agency staff will always have a role in the NHS but they should be covering busy periods or staff sickness. To some extent, temporary staff expenditure has risen after the publication of the Francis Report, which has meant hospitals have needed to put more staff on wards and there is a disconnect between the size of the existing NHS workforce and its current needs. This means getting professional help to manage staff demand is probably more critical than it has ever been.”

Talent HCM has produced a comprehensive guide to development of recruitment practices and options such as its neutral vendor solution, which can be downloaded from the website. The guide gives NHS managers the knowledge they need to cut costs, maintain staff quality and supply, whilst ensuring compliance.