Why we can’t be daunted by the workforce challenge

The NHS employs around 1.5 million people (around 1.2 million of these in England), putting it in the unlikely company of McDonalds, the US Department of Defence and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army as one of the largest employers in the world.  It’s perhaps no wonder then that workforce has always been one of the hardest questions for the NHS to tackle – how best to use 1.5 million people to deliver healthcare to a population of 64 million?  With the NHS seeming to constantly lurch from one crisis to another on workforce, is the question just too difficult to answer?  At Macmillan, we think it can’t be, and that starting with the cancer workforce could be a way to start unlocking some of the trickier questions around how to manage one of the world’s five largest workforces.

Since the announcement of the Independent Cancer Taskforce last January and the subsequent publication of the Cancer Strategy for England in July last year, the cancer community has been working hard to decide what cancer care should look like in the future.  We know that the number of people living with cancer is growing and that their complex and changing needs have to be addressed.  We know that care needs to be more personalised, and that improvements need to be made to patient experience right across the pathway.  But we also know that none of this can be achieved without the right workforce with the right skills in the right place.

At Macmillan, we understand just how important the workforce is to someone with a cancer diagnosis.  Workforce planning and its associated focus on capacity, skills-mix and retention, may sound fairly dry but the stories we hear from patients about the crucial role played by both the salaried and unsalaried workforce – from the consultant who diagnosed them, to the Clinical Nurse Specialist who supported them through treatment, to the volunteer who provided them with information and support – remind us why this is such a crucial part of delivering the ambitions set out in the Cancer Strategy for England.

But it also reminds us of why it is such a huge challenge.  The needs of the 2 million people currently living with or beyond cancer in England are complex and varied, and whilst many people with cancer have a positive experience of their care, too many people do not have the support they need.  Data shows us that there are gaps in key professions including Clinical Nurse Specialists and General Practitioners, and professionals across the health service are still hampered by organisational boundaries and silos.  Add into this mix the unprecedented financial challenges facing the NHS, the need to deliver the changes set out in the Five Year Forward View, and uncertainty around what impact the EU referendum result may have on the NHS workforce, and the challenge of developing a sustainable cancer workforce that is fit for purpose can seem a daunting prospect.

It is vital however that we don’t shy away from this challenge.  The Cancer Strategy for England recognised how integral workforce is, and included a number of recommendations, with the key one being that Health Education England should work with NHS England and other bodies to conduct a strategic review of the cancer workforce.  We believe that this is one of the most important recommendations in the strategy and offers a huge opportunity to think differently about what the cancer workforce needs to look like in the future.

The scope of this recommendation means that it will require the support of the whole cancer community to deliver.  That’s why earlier this year we worked in partnership with Cancer Research UK to bring together around 30 organisations including charities, professional bodies, Royal Colleges and Health Education England themselves, to discuss what the strategic review should look at.

The output of this event is a set of eight principles which those organisations, along with Macmillan and CRUK, believe should underpin the workforce review.  For example, principle one states that the review should look both at the current and future cancer workforce, whilst principle four states that the review needs to demonstrate how the workforce can be educated and supported to develop the right skills, training and behaviours to deliver high quality and compassionate care.  We believe that all of them are equally important, and all need to be considered if the review is to set out a meaningful vision for what the cancer workforce of the future should look like.  However, they should be just the start of the conversation and we’d like you to get in touch and tell us what you think – is there anything else that should be prioritised?

What ultimately underpins these principles is a shared consensus that there is an urgent need for change. We must be ambitious when thinking about when, where and by whom care is delivered.  It is no longer possible to plan for the future workforce by thinking soley about numbers of current professionals. We need to start with the needs of the patient and decide how the workforce can best meet the challenge, not just of a rising population but of a changing demographic with more and more people living with cancer as a long term condition (something which we highlighted in our report released earlier this month on how cancer care has changed over the last few decades).

Importantly, we also need to think about how strategic workforce planning should work in future.  A number of think tanks have highlighted the challenges around workforce planning in the NHS more widely, with data gaps and a lack of clear roles and responsibility in relation to workforce strategy being two key issues.  These challenges are all borne out in the current challenges facing the cancer workforce, and as cancer involves a wide variety of professions, specialisms and settings we believe it can be an effective test bed, with lessons that can be applied across the NHS.

At Macmillan, we’re excited about the opportunity to start tackling some of these big questions, and we’re inspired by the drive, commitment and consensus of the cancer community on this important issue.  If the Cancer Strategy is to make a real difference to the experience of individual patients by 2020, it is important that this momentum is retained and that workforce is at the heart of the Cancer Strategy implementation.  Over the next few months, we’ll be continuing to think about what the future workforce should look like, so why not get in touch and tell us what you think.

Rebecca Leech, Senior Public Affairs Officer

Contact: RLeech@macmillan.org.uk or NKennedy@macmillan.org.uk

@MacmillanPA

 

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