Retired hospital consultants are to be drafted in to help the NHS clear the backlog of care, health leaders have announced. Newly retired specialists will be able to offer virtual consultations from anywhere in England to help hospitals across the country clear the record 7.4 million people on the NHS waiting list.
Meanwhile, speaking about the forthcoming NHS workforce plan, health leaders said that they did not want to inhibit people with poor school grades entering the NHS and the plan would offer "alternative channel into professions for people with the talent".
The health service is issuing a call to newly retired doctors to "keep caring" by performing outpatient appointments in early retirement.
Some 1,000 consultants retire from the NHS every year.
New Scheme Will Begin This Autumn
From autumn they will be able to sign up to a new digital platform offering their ability either in person or virtually. Hospitals will be able to use the platform to find consultants they need to help provide care for patients and help cut down their waiting lists. It is also hoped the move will also crack down on expensive agency spend.
NHS England said that more than four-fifths of people on the waiting list need an outpatient appointment such as a follow-up for cardiology or rheumatology – rather than a surgical procedure. Those requiring a face-to-face appointment or follow-up will be seen in the usual way, a spokesperson said.
Speaking at the NHS Confed Expo conference in Manchester, Amanda Pritchard, NHS England chief executive, said: "We will set out how we want to keep people at the end of their career engaged in ways that work for them. The experience of the pandemic showed the enormous value of returners in supporting the current workforce."
An NHS spokesperson said that all "appropriate checks" will be carried out before newly-retired consultants become fully registered on the platform and they will need an active registration on the specialist register and the GMC registry.
Meanwhile Ms Pritchard said that more work on the retention of staff was also important. "We can't invest in training and additional routes to bring more people into the health service if when they get here they find the conditions aren't right and they leave," she said.
She said the much-anticipated NHS workforce plan would be published "soon".
During a recent visit to her old school in Durham she met children as young as 11 who expressed a desire to work in the NHS. Ms Pritchard said: "We can't afford for that wave of enthusiasm to crash against the closed door of insufficient places on medical or nursing courses. Neither can we afford for it to crash against a cliff face of high academic requirements if we can provide an alternative channel into professions for people with the talent and the drive to do those roles."
The NHS has already announced that the workforce plan will include an expansion of apprenticeship roles for both doctors and nurses.
Working to Clear the Backlog
Commenting on the announcement, Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, which is part of the NHS Confederation, said: "The NHS has already been working hard to clear the backlogs but concerted action is needed to help it go even further.
"With demand so high and with 432,000 outpatient appointments having had to be cancelled or rescheduled because of the walkouts over the last 6 months, health leaders will welcome reinforcements in the form of retired medics rejoining the service to lend their support.
"This is on top of flexibilities that the NHS offers already around retirement and working arrangements so that vital talent can be retained.
"While this new initiative is needed, 8% of medical posts in secondary care are currently vacant, and so the worry is that it could be little more than a sticking plaster for the much deeper workforce crisis that is hindering what the NHS can deliver.
Meanwhile, Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, told the conference that more must be done to create a "health strategy" instead of "NHS policies".
In his keynote address to the conference, he said: "We need to have a health strategy, not just policies for the NHS.
"If we are to thrive in the health service… we know we can't succeed unless we sort out the terrible crisis unfolding in social care; we know that we need action on smoking, on nutrition, on exercise; also the social determinants of health – housing."