NHS ‘woefully unprepared’ for care of an ageing England

The NHS is “flying blind” and “woefully unprepared” to cope with England’s rapidly ageing population, senior doctors have warned as stark new figures reveal the country has only one full-time geriatrician to care for every 8,000 older people.

Andrew Gregory www.theguardian.com 

The Royal College of Physicians (RCP) said the drastic shortage of specially trained physicians to look after the rising number of elderly people and a lack of NHS workforce planning meant England was “sleepwalking into an avoidable crisis of care for older people”.

Its analysis of NHS and Office for National Statistics data shows there is just one full-time geriatrician for every 8,031 people over the age of 65 in England. There are also regional disparities, with one geriatrician caring for more than 12,500 over-65s in the east Midlands, while the figure in north-east and central London is one per 3,254.

Estimates suggest that by 2040 there could be as many as 17 million over-65s. But the college warns that many doctors will soon be requiring geriatric care themselves as 48% of consultant geriatricians are due to retire within the next decade.

The RCP said the health service was short of staff across all specialities and the shortage of geriatricians was one example of why the health service needed more workforce planning. It said there was no publicly available data on the number of staff the NHS needed to train now to meet future demand for care.

The college has joined more than 100 medical organisations calling for a change to the health and care bill that would require ministers to publish regular assessments of the numbers of staff in the NHS and social care system.

“I have dedicated my career to working in the NHS – a service that I am fiercely proud of – and yet it scares me to wonder what might happen should I need care as I get older,” said Dr Andrew Goddard, the president of the RCP. “There simply aren’t enough doctors to go round, not least within geriatrics.

“The workforce crisis we’re facing is largely down to an astonishing lack of planning. All successful organisations rely on long-term workforce planning to meet demand and it’s absurd that we don’t do this for the NHS and social care system. The government needs to … make workforce planning a priority.”

Dr Jennifer Burns, the president of the British Geriatrics Society, said the crisis would only worsen with the “predictable rise” in the numbers of older people across the country. “It is absolutely vital that these fundamental issues around the recruitment, retention, development and support of the workforce are addressed, and that there is a properly resourced strategy for future needs,” she said.

Danny Mortimer, the chief executive of NHS Employers and deputy chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said the RCP analysis highlighted “the growing mismatch between the demand for and availability of geriatricians”.

He added: “Sajid Javid’s recent commissioning of a workforce strategy is a very welcome step, but as the government’s health and care bill continues through parliament, we would urge the government to accept amendments requiring the health secretary to publish regular, independent assessments of the numbers of staff the NHS and social care system need now and in future.”