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Running on empty: how next-gen tech can help refuel a burnt out NHS workforce

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Dr Anas Nader, CEO and co-founder of Patchwork Health, explains how innovative new technologies are being used to combat the NHS burnout epidemic.

You only need to look at the panic-fuelled petrol queues dominating recent headlines to know that, when an essential resource like fuel runs out, it’s treated as a national emergency. However, right under our noses, supplies of a very different essential resource are under threat. But this is no simple commodity, it’s a uniquely human, complex and high-quality asset: health and social care staff.

Behind closed hospital doors, a burnout epidemic has left one in five staff considering leaving their NHS careers. And with over 93,000 vacancies currently open across the health service and an extra 1.1m staff needed to meet predicted care demands by 2031, there’s no doubt that refuelling our NHS workforce is a matter of national urgency.

Yet, while ministers pulled out the stops to refill the UK’s empty petrol pumps in a matter of weeks, the NHS burnout crisis awaits a proportional response from decision makers. But this is not a time for inactivity; with winter challenges approaching for the health service, we need to dig deep into the causes of burnout so we can refuel our priceless NHS, safely and sustainably.

An invisible crisis

So, why hasn’t the burnout epidemic sparked the same media uproar as the fuel crisis? Put simply, while the effects of supply chain disruption like a fuel shortage are clear to see and understand, NHS burnout is a largely invisible issue. Vehicle owners up and down the country have been directly affected by the lack of fuel; but unless they know an NHS worker personally or have recently used NHS services themselves, it’s unlikely the severity of staff burnout will have entered their consciousness.

What’s more, it’s much harder to refuel a burnt out workforce than it is to refill a nation’s petrol stations. Quick-fixes and stop-gap measures just won’t cut it here. There’s so much potential for positive change; what is needed is investment, wide-ranging reform and an ambitious re-imagining of the status quo.

However, the significant consequences of untreated burnout across the NHS must not be underestimated. It’s easy to assume that our health service is a safety net that will always be there; but should this rate of staff exit continue, resulting in there not being enough doctors and nurses left on the wards, who will carry out your teenager’s emergency appendix removal? If there aren’t enough midwives, who will deliver your sister’s baby? If there aren’t enough pharmacists, who will make sure that your grandmother gets her medication? These are not far-fetched scenarios; they could become realities if necessary action is not taken to fix workforces systems.

Diagnosing the problem 

Before we can effectively refuel the NHS workforce and build back better, we must pinpoint exactly what is causing staff to burn out in the first place. The obvious answer is understandably the pressures exacerbated by the pandemic and subsequent patient care backlogs. But when we look in a little more detail, we notice that these pressures are compounded by inflexible working hours and rigid rotas that make it difficult to take leave or work part-time. The 2020s has already been hailed as the decade of the flexible working revolution, but there’s little sign of this in the NHS. For many, balancing work with family commitments, professional development and personal wellbeing can seem like an impossible challenge.

It’s no wonder, then, that NHS staff are running on empty. If their reserves are not hastily replenished, we may well witness a mass exodus which strips the health service of its most vital resource. Luckily, there are innovative solutions that have recently been brought to the table. Built on the union of nextgen tech and a people-first approach to HR, they offer the tools to overcome the obstacles currently feeding the burnout crisis.

Refuelling the NHS workforce

By wielding the power of these innovative new technologies and working in close collaboration with NHS teams, we can provide the flexibility, autonomy and support to improve outcomes for clinicians, as well as their patients and employers.

Staff wellbeing must be made a priority. Comprehensive support must be offered, including access to helplines, readily available virtual therapy and online advice platforms. A strong, multifaceted support infrastructure will stop struggling staff from falling through the net. Being able to access help swiftly and directly will reduce their chances of burnout and enable them to enjoy fulfilling careers, consequently boosting retention and keeping wards safely staffed.

Another key priority is the replacing of outdated, rigid staffing systems with more intuitive and innovative solutions tailored to alleviate the pain points that frustrate clinicians and admin teams alike. It’s a myth that managers have to relinquish their oversight when they give staff more autonomy over their schedules; with the right tools, flexibility and empowerment can come hand-in-hand with effective management. But it’s also important to stress that tech solutions alone are no silver bullet; they must be embedded in a human-led, collaborative and supportive partnership between the tech provider and NHS organisation. This will allow for tailoring and ongoing refinement based on the unique needs of each employer and their employees.

And finally, providing employers with solutions that are fully interoperable and integrated with existing systems will also increase the potential for pan-regional collaboration. This will allow different NHS teams to work together to deploy staff where they are needed most, so no individual region or department is left to shoulder the burnout burden.

It’s time to treat NHS staff burnout as the national crisis it truly is. The same level of action and attention that went into preventing the country from reaching a petrol-less standstill must be deployed to protect NHS staff wellbeing. The solutions already exist; now is the time to harness them to help refuel our NHS workforce. Fail to boost its reserves, and we risk the health service’s most precious resource running dry.

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