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Will Hiring Overseas Fix the Nursing Shortage Crisis in the UK?

December 30, 2013

A year doesn’t go by without a un-PC gaffe by Prince Philip, and 2013 was no different. Philip’s first royal engagement of the year was to open a £5.5 million cardiac centre at Luton hospital back in February. Upon meeting a Filipino nurse, the 91 year old royal commented that the Philippines “must be half empty – you’re all here running the NHS!” The gaffe was taken in good humour, but revealed a lot about the rise of overseas workers, especially nurses, in the NHS.

More NHS trusts than ever are now relying on recruitment drives outside of the UK to hire nurses, with over 40 admitting that they have recruited overseas, and another 41 have announced plans to do so in the future. The number of nurses who are recruited overseas has doubled over the past 3 years, and have been hired from countries as far afield as Australia, the USA and India. However, most nurses are hired from Portugal, Spain, Ireland and the Philippines.

According to projections, the nurse shortage in the UK will number at over 50,000 by 2016, caused by a failure to replace retired nurses, redundancies and recruitment freezes alongside tight budget constraints that are putting pressure on NHS management to find cut price solutions to staffing shortages. Alongside the panic over nurse shortages, training places for nursing courses in the UK have been cut dramatically, with 2,500 places cut over the last 3 years.

Mixed Messages

With a nurse shortage that could become catastrophic and funding cuts in place for nurse training and recruitment, both the NHS and coalition government have been accused of sending mixed messages to the public, and has faced criticism from the media for hiring nurses from other countries in order to plug the recruitment gap when there are so many willing nurses in the UK.

One of the main criticisms of an overseas recruitment drive is the expense of travelling overseas to find new nurses. An investigation by the Daily Telegraph revealed that hospitals spend a large amount on travel, food and hotels for management teams who travel to attend recruitment fairs across the world. However, the average cost to train a nurse in the UK is around £70,000 per student, and hiring fully qualified nurses from abroad is still usually a saving rather than a loss.

Nursing courses are now the most popular choice of study in the UK, meaning there is a fierce competition for places despite huge nursing shortages. Ten times as many people applied to study nursing at the University of Northampton as there were places, making the course harder to get into than Oxford and Cambridge.

Winter Crisis

A growing concern in 2013 is the so-called ‘Winter Crisis’, when hospital attendance shoots up and A&E departments grow chaotic when flu, viruses and ice and snow hit the country. With winter creeping up on the NHS, hiring from overseas has been praised by hospital management as a positive ‘quick fix’ that provides our hospitals with much needed help on demand. An anonymous NHS employee told The Independent: “If you need a lot of nurses quickly, then the best thing to do is jump on a plane and bring them back from an EU country. They’re happy and the hospitals are happy.” Hundreds of nurses from Spain and Portugal were hired in November in order to prepare for the seasonal rush.

Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, announced in November that all hospitals will have to publish their staffing levels from 2014 onwards, giving the public a better idea of the nursing shortage. There has an announcement of nearly 4,000 new nurses joining the NHS by March 2014, but there was no specification of whether these nurses would come from the UK or abroad.

Communication Issues

Many Spanish nurses are looking to England for employment as Spain’s own economic crisis has led to a huge shortage in nursing jobs and a surplus of highly qualified healthcare workers in need of a job. It has also been argued that many nurses from overseas, particularly Portuguese and Spanish nurses, have better qualifications and experience than those in the UK because of systems where a nurse will move between different wards rather than sticking to one, increasing their skill set.

However, the increase of overseas recruitment has also faced a large amount of criticism, mostly over vital language and communication issues. Though many job interviews are in English, many nurses do not have to take an English test before being employed by the NHS, which could lead to communication breakdowns which can endanger patients and hospital performance.

Overseas recruitment is being embraced by NHS management as the magic fix to a possible future nursing crisis, but there are still many issues and difficulties that surround the issue of hiring nurses from abroad.

Alex is a freelance writer with an interest in issues surrounding health and healthcare, especially the NHS. She works alongside, who provide healthcare worker rebates.

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