New figures indicate that spending on agency staff within the NHS in Scotland has doubled in just four years.
The growing vacancy rate in the nation has seen the amount spent on agency staff escalate rapidly to £175 million, with this figure also including locum doctors.
Agency spending is now the equivalent of nearly 3% of total staff spending by NHS Scotland.
The figure was highlighted in a briefing paper by Audit Scotland ahead of a series of reports on the health service workforce.
Commenting on the issue, Caroline Gardiner, Auditor General for Scotland, indicated her belief that the NHS in Scotland faces major staffing conundrums in the immediate future.
“There are growing pressures on NHS boards which are struggling to juggle service delivery and progress major reform, at the same time as managing considerable financial challenges. Nearly 160,000 people work in Scotland’s NHS, which provides vital services for millions of us every year. Their hard work and commitment, sometimes in life-or-death circumstances, is always to be admired. However, the NHS faces challenges if the workforce is to meet the growing demands of our ageing population and adapt to new ways of working.”
Gardiner also reflected on the positive role that Audit Scotland Can play in the future direction of the health service.
“We know that our audit work on health and social care in Scotland has a role to play in the wider debate about what’s needed to transform these services and make them sustainable for the future.”
While staffing levels for NHS Scotland are the highest on record, the level of vacancy and spending on agency staff are both increasing significantly.
In 2016, the auditors found that the consultant vacancy rate was 6.5%, with general practice running at a slightly lower level of 5%.
There was also evidence of the greying population in Scotland uncovered, with auditors noting that 38% of staff are aged over 50, compared with 34% back in 2012.
Labour health spokesman Anas Sarwar MSP pulled no punches, describing the current situation as a workforce crisis.
“It was Nicola Sturgeon as health secretary who slashed training places for nurses and midwives and our health service is now in real trouble as a result.”
While Liberal Democrat health spokesman Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP was scathing on the workforce planning provisions made by the government, asserting that the existing climate is nothing short of woerful.
“Our health service is running on a skeleton crew and we’re running out of time. The evidence from Audit Scotland is indisputable. The number of vacancies has increased. Spending on agency staff has doubled since 2011 as NHS boards try to fill the gaps.”
Cole-Hamilton also spoke out on the demographic issues, and challenged the government to take decisive action.
“A huge chunk of the NHS workforce is heading towards retirement, with nurses on the frontline warning we are juggling with a ‘demographic timebomb’. The Scottish Government’s record on workforce planning has been woeful. It takes seven years to train a doctor but staffing levels are only being planned five years ahead. The Health Secretary needs to immediately explain to patients and under pressure staff how her new strategy will end this workforce crisis.”