Why we must 'future-proof' our healthcare professionals
The best training is key to a successful NHS, says Professor Robert Sneyd.
At the end of last year, Plymouth University Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry (PU PSMD) initiated a discussion in Westminster about the future of training for healthcare professionals. The discussion was entitled: "Shaping the workforce of the future; putting the patient first."
Taking part in the discussion were some of the UK's leading health policy experts, thought leaders, local politicians and representatives from PU PSMD. The debate was reported in leading professional title Health Service Journal last week.
The choice of topic and timing was no accident: the healthcare professions are under more close scrutiny now than they have ever been in the history of the NHS, and how they are prepared for their roles sits at the heart of the matter.
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Stories of shortfalls in care, knowledge and expertise have bubbled up in the press with increasing frequency. The publication of the Francis Report on February 24 laid bare such shortcomings at one NHS trust – Mid Staffordshire. The report pulled no punches and identified failures, systemic and professional, at all levels. Worryingly, the report acted as a catalyst, exposing equally serious failings at dozens of NHS trusts across the country, which affect tens of thousands of patients and their families.
There are many reasons for such failures, but a key factor is how those who work in the healthcare professions are prepared for their roles. Such preparation is no easy or straightforward task, neither is it achieved in one simple hit – it is a process that should continue seamlessly throughout careers. The healthcare environment is ever-changing and the NHS is a very different animal to the one which opened its doors to patients in 1948. Those who care for us at all levels must do so in a constantly shifting landscape, which is professionally challenging in itself. No longer is it sufficient to "know your stuff" and be vaguely good with people.
Healthcare professionals must care for patients who are more aware and knowledgeable than ever before. They must keep up to speed with the latest thinking on care, treatments, therapies and techniques, in a world where our knowledge increases exponentially with each new research discovery. And they must do all this in a working environment that is in flux, makes shifting demands, and which is itself under pressure from all sides.
The Westminster debate covered these issues and covered several areas, including: training healthcare professionals with the right values; preparing those in training for working in an ever-changing NHS, including managing their expectations from the start; ensuring that training is multidisciplinary, and that the various health professions learn to work with each other from an early stage; training healthcare professionals who are able to care for a growing number of patients with more than one illness; the changing mix of skillsets and health professions in the future; the need for leadership, excellent clinical and non-clinical skills; and flexibility.
It also discussed the redistribution of healthcare workers to meet the changing needs of healthcare in the future. It was suggested that we need fewer doctors and nurses but potentially increasing numbers of other health staff to provide a holistic approach to care. Clearly if this is the case any transition from the current staffing mix would need to be carefully handled: the common perception is that, like police officers, more is good.
The key will be to recruit healthcare professionals to posts where they are needed: only recently the Royal College of General Practitioners announced that, in its view, a further 10,000 GPs were required if the NHS is to cope with its increasing workload and ensure patients are properly cared for out of hours.
One of the heartening 'take homes' from the debate for us at PU PSMD was that, in terms of preparing our medical and dental students for their future careers, we appear to be getting it right. Both medical and dental students are exposed to the realities of working in the NHS and with patients from an early stage in their studies. Students spend time gaining experience with a wide range of healthcare professionals across the region, from consultants on hospital wards to GP and dental surgeries. They also gain valuable insight into the needs of a variety of groups within the community by working with those groups – such as schools, older people and individuals from disadvantaged groups.
The round-table debate gave us an excellent opportunity to interact with some of the most influential health professionals in the UK and to initiate an important and lively debate around the future of healthcare professional training.
Professor Robert Sneyd is Dean of Plymouth University Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry, www.plymouth.ac.uk/peninsula. If you would like to take part in the debate, tune in to BBC Radio Devon's Interactive Lunch on Friday, March 1, between 2pm and 2.30pm.