From education to employment

Prescribing Success – How Professional Apprenticeships Can Help Deliver the NHS’s Future Workforce

Nichola Hay

In this article, Nichola discusses the NHS workforce transformation plan to have 1 out of 6 staff trained through apprenticeships in the next five years. Nichola explores the opportunities of scaling up apprenticeship training and the barriers to delivery.

Our National Health Service is currently in the grips of a historic staffing crisis that is threatening to undermine this critical institution’s long-term survival. In the same year that we celebrated the NHS’s 75th birthday, there were reports of staff shortages being on track to exceed 570,000 by 2036 without urgent action.

The consequences of this crisis are severe, negatively impacting the access to and quality of healthcare for millions of people across the country. Furthermore, the existing staff members that the NHS does have are subject to higher workloads and longer hours, leading to a record rise in burnout, stress and fatigue.

Considering this worrying backdrop, it was disappointing to see that the Government’s proposal to have one out of six NHS clinicians trained through apprenticeships over the next five years was met with much chagrin from parts of the UK health profession, the public and the media.

This proposal to open up new routes into the health service through professional apprenticeships, outlined in the much anticipated NHS Long-Term Workforce Plan, was critically labelled a threat to the quality of care, which would put patients at risk and lead to a devaluation in the UK university degree system.

This instinctive hesitancy towards the concept of health professionals being trained through apprenticeships reveals an outdated attitude towards the value of professional apprenticeships. A long-standing preference for traditional academic pathways has fostered a cultural bias against training that relies more so on practical skills and direct work experience.

The fact is that employers across key industries, including highly regulated sectors such as law and financial services, have all had significant success adopting professional apprenticeships into their talent acquisition strategies. Our health service must demonstrate the same willingness to innovate if it is to overcome the present challenges.

The real threat to quality of care is an understaffed health profession unable to meet the health demands of the country. To address this bias against professional apprenticeships, it is important to highlight their unique potential to transform the NHS workforce for the better to ensure it is fully equipped to address the health challenges of future generations.

Curbing the staffing crisis and boosting retention

A key element of the Conservative Party’s 2019 manifesto was a pledge to increase the number of doctors, nurses, and primary care professionals in the NHS workforce. The Government’s promotion of professional apprenticeship as an alternative route into the health service is a positive step towards delivering on those key ambitious promises.

Maintaining standards of care can and should remain at the heart of our health education and training system. Any doctor doing a medical apprenticeship will still have to pass the same GMC exams as graduates.

For existing members of staff members, apprenticeships create opportunities for retraining that would allow ambitious individuals to pursue promotions, explore different roles, and expand their skill sets.

At a time when younger generations increasingly value flexibility from their employers above all else, professional apprenticeships could go a long way towards bolstering staff retention in the NHS and fostering a culture of continuous learning and upward mobility.

Widening access to the health profession

As a national health service, it is important that the NHS workforce is reflective of the diverse populace of the nation itself. Apprenticeships offer a practical pathway for individuals from all economic backgrounds to enter the sector, bringing fresh new perspectives and diverse skill sets.

Additionally, given the costs attached to the traditional academic pathways into the health profession, it is refreshing to see new, more accessible routes being opened up in order to boost intake. The earn-while-you-learn component of apprenticeships offers a far better model for those who cannot afford to take time out from full-time employment to retrain.

It is important that we eliminate the cost-prohibitive barriers which stop many from lower economic backgrounds from considering a career in the health profession. Ultimately, limiting the pool of candidates only serves to perpetuate the workforce shortages and exacerbate present-day diversity issues.

Addressing the digital skills gap

Finally, it is worth considering that to deliver the technological revolution in healthcare; you will need a workforce fully equipped with the skills to utilise these new tools and integrate new systems into current practices. In June, the Health and Social Care Committee published a report which looked at the barriers to delivering a digitally enhanced NHS.

The committee recommended investment in the wider workforce’s digital skills and urged the DHSC to work with NHS England to ensure that digital training is integrated through its wider learning programmes when devising professional training.

Here again, professional apprenticeships offer an attractive solution. Apprenticeships provide a structured framework for NHS staff to learn and acquire these technical skills, whether mastering electronic health records, understanding medical imaging software, or implementing digital health solutions.

By investing in apprenticeships, the NHS ensures that it’s equipped with a satisfied, appropriately staffed workforce that is adaptable, competent, and ready to harness the power of technology to improve patient outcomes.

By Nichola Hay MBE, Director of Apprenticeship Strategy and Policy at BPP

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