The boss of Blackpool Victoria Hospital today reassured nurses that action is being taken to improve working conditions as the health trust attempts to persuade those who have left the profession to return.
Gary Doherty said Blackpool, like other hospital trusts, had faced challenges to recruit staff during a difficult winter.
There is a national shortage of nurses.
One leading Lancashire health boss told The Gazette the situation was so severe nurses were now being signed up by hospitals before they had completed their training in a bid to get in first on recruits.
Health chiefs in North Wales have recently announced they are recruiting more than 70 Spanish nurses, amid a staffing crisis gripping the country’s health system.
And that comes as experts blamed a failure to reach A&E waiting times, in part, on an inability to recruit doctors and nurses across the UK.
Last year more than 7,000 foreign nurses were registered to work in Britain and recruits are now being sought from Europe, as well as the Philippines and North America.
Mr Doherty, the Blackpool trust chief executive, said staff turnover at the Vic “compared very well with other places”.
For the second year the Blackpool trust is running a programme aimed at encouraging more ex-nursing staff back into the profession. The free course is run by Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and the University of Central Lancashire.
Mr Doherty said: “Across the NHS it’s been an incredibly difficult December and January and it’s very clear we need some new ways of working.
“We want nurses who might consider coming back to the profession to feel that things are going to be different.
“We need to increase the supply of nurse training places and prevent people leaving the service.”
The trust currently has 15 nursing vacancies across its 2,300-strong nursing and midwifery group, while there are also 25 consultant vacancies.
Mr Doherty added: “Every trust is trying to recruit more doctors and nurses and it can be more difficult to attract people to Blackpool than to places like Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield.
“But our staffing has improved and we now have a 90 per cent ‘fill rate’ across nursing. That means that for every 10 posts we have nine staff so we are meeting these guidelines but we know we have to continue the improvement.
“We had planned to recruit 65 more nurses between December and March and we have already done that, with 30 coming in from places like Spain, Italy and Romania.
“However, I would prefer to recruit here where possible because it takes local people less time to get used the NHS system.”
Mr Doherty said the trust had been nominated a ‘Pioneer’ pilot site by the Government and hopes this will help to reduce demand on the hospital.
Under the pilot, Moor Park Health and Social Care Centre and the Lytham Primary Care Centre will offer a new Extensive Care Service for the five per cent of patients who place most demand on GPs.
They will be supported by hospital consultants, specialist nurses and health coaches to address issues like alcohol, smoking and mental health.
Mr Doherty said that would, in turn, free up GPs’ time and help to reduce demand on the hospital.
“It has been successful in other countries and it will help but it probably won’t be enough,” he said.
“Whatever government we have in power we need to bring together GPs, social care and hospitals so patients are not admitted to hospital as much.
“Because we’re so busy on our wards it’s very demanding for staff and not the kind of experience we want for them. If we can change that it makes things better for patients too.”
Bosses at the Vic are keen to point to how well its staff have done at hitting or getting near the Government target of treating 95 per cent of patients within four hours at A&E through this winter.
It is a target which is causing issues across the UK, with many pointing the finger at staffing issues.
Jonathan Bowker, the Royal College of Nursing union’s senior officer for Blackpool and East Lancashire, said: “Hospitals are facing enormous problems dealing with increasing pressure and demand, whilst also struggling to recruit and retain nurses to provide patient care.
“One part of the solution to the nursing shortage is to encourage nurses who no longer work in the NHS to return to practice.
“Bringing their skills and experience back to the health service can be a relatively quick and cost-effective means of plugging the gaps in staffing.
“Such nurses are an invaluable resource for the NHS, and I hope this scheme will attract nurses back into a very worthwhile and rewarding profession.
“But there must be sufficient funding to ensure that there is suitable supervision, mentoring and updating processes in place for return to practice programmes like this.
“Above all the NHS must also examine and rectify the failings in long-term workforce planning to avoid ‘boom and bust’ and this unnecessary numbers crisis.”
In a bid to encourage more ex-nursing staff back to Blackpool a course is being run from March 6.
The Return to Practice nursing programme course, which also includes a bursary, runs for six months and is open to all former qualified nurses who left the profession more than three years ago.
The trust says full and part-time job opportunities will be available to those who complete the programme.
Karen Smith, 44, who works in the Intensive Treatment Unit (ITU) Department at the Vic, returned to the profession after a 15-year gap during which she worked in sales.
She said she had missed nursing and added: “I was a bit worried that after 15 years I would find it difficult but that was not the case at all.
“I actually think the life skills I gained from working in sales and having my own family mean that I am a better nurse now than I was before.
“It wasn’t an easy decision to make but it is the best thing I have ever done.”
Marie Thompson, the trust’s director of nursing and quality, reported at a recent board meeting that the trust was ‘actively continuing with European recruitment and that the biggest challenge was to ensure retention of staff’.
Promoting the new Return to Practice nursing programme, she said: “People have left nursing for all sorts of reasons.
“Sometimes they left to care for an elderly member of their family or maybe they had to relocate. The trust has a number of vacancies and I am sure there will be a role suited to their skills at the end of the course.” n OPINION – PAGE 10