Scotland’s hospitals have seen vacancies for consultants rise by 10% in the last year, with more than 250 posts lying empty for at least six months, new figures have shown.
Official data from the NHS revealed that at the end of September 2017 the whole time equivalent (WTE) of 430.5 consultant posts were unfilled – a drop from 476.4 in June but a rise of 10.4% over the last 12 months.
These included 254.3 WTE consultant jobs that had been empty for a minimum of six months – an increase of 38.6% from September 2016 when the total was 183.5.
Almost one in six (15.9%) of all clinical radiology consultant posts were unfilled, with the figures showing 59.5 WTE posts empty at the end of September, with 45.4 of these having been vacant for at least six months.
The figures were included in the latest NHS workforce statistics for Scotland, which showed a record number of people employed across the health service.
At the end of September 2017, the WTE number of staff had risen to 139,492.1, the fifth year in a row it has increased.
However, the data revealed a slowdown in jobs growth in the NHS, falling from 1.8% to 0.6% over the period.
For consultants, jobs growth had “decreased significantly”, falling from 2.9% in September 2016 to 0.3% a year later.
Overall, 7.7% of all consultants’ jobs were vacant, with the figures from the end of September also showing a slight rise in the number of nursing and midwifery posts that were unfilled.
The vacancy rate for these increased from 4.3% in September 2016 to 4.5% 12 months later – meaning there were 2,789.2 WTE jobs without someone in post, including 826.9 WTE which had been empty for at least three months.
Labour health spokesman Anas Sarwar claimed the “scale of unfilled posts in our health service is simply staggering”, with “o ver 400 consultant posts lying empty alongside nearly 3,000 nursing and midwifery posts unfilled”.
He added: “No wonder NHS staff feel overworked and undervalued – the support they should be getting simply isn’t there.
“It was Nicola Sturgeon as health secretary who slashed training posts for nurses and midwives, and cut funding for medical students. This failure lies at her door.”
Health Secretary Shona Robison said: ” NHS staffing in Scotland is at a new record high level and has increased by over 12,400 under this government.
“This has been backed by our record high investment in the NHS, supporting more doctors, nurses and midwives, and care workers looking after the people of Scotland.
“We’re taking firm action to ensure we recruit, develop and retain the next generation of health service workers.
“Just this week, Ucas figures showed the highest-ever number of acceptances to study nursing at Scottish universities, with an 8% increase compared to a 3% decrease in England.
“In Scotland we have retained bursaries for our nursing and midwifery students as well as making sure their tuition is free – in contrast the UK Government has scrapped bursaries and brought in tuition fees for nursing students in England.
“To support our ambitions further we have increased nursing and midwifery intakes by 4.7% this year – the fifth successive rise.”
The BMA in Scotland criticised the vacancy rates for consultants, with Simon Barker, chair of the Scottish consultants committee, saying: ” It is not enough to say that we have more doctors when it is clear that need is considerably outstripping capacity.
“It is not enough to create extra posts, they must be filled.”
Mr Barker said it was “e ven more concerning” that almost 60% of vacant consultant posts have been unfilled for more than six months and that the total had “consistently grown over the past year”.
He stated: “This highlights the sustained and constant difficulties certain specialities are experiencing in being unable to recruit and retain consultants to hospitals, and this is leading to huge service stresses the length and breadth of Scotland.
“Despite repeated advertising, these posts are not proving attractive to consultants and this is causing unrelenting pressure on those consultants currently working in the health service.”
Gregor McNie, Cancer Research UK’s head of external affairs in Scotland, said: “Unfortunately the shortage of radiologists highlighted in this report isn’t a surprise.
“Just last week, the waiting-times target for reporting diagnostic tests in Scotland was missed. This was partly down to a shortage of radiologists.
“Innovative solutions are urgently needed to address this shortage. This could mean upskilling some workers as well as introducing incentives for skilled staff to remain in the NHS after retirement.
“Waiting to find out if you do or don’t have cancer can be an incredibly anxious time, and so it’s vital that staff shortages are addressed.”
Health campaigners at Breast Cancer Now also raised concerns about the level of vacancies among radiologists.
Policy manager S ally Greenbrook said: ” Today’s worrying figures reveal real problems in the recruitment and retention of consultant radiologists.
“These roles are absolutely central to the Scottish NHS’ ability to diagnose and treat many types of cancer, and this growing workforce crisis must be urgently addressed.
“Our recent ‘Good Enough? Breast cancer in the UK’ report highlighted that 20% of breast radiologists are expected to retire in Scotland between 2015 and 2025.
“We need a long-term workforce plan to make sure that the way we diagnose and care for people with breast cancer is fit for the future.”