A third of doctors and three in 10 nurses working in the health service have come from abroad – the highest proportion since records began, an analysis of NHS Digital data by the PA news agency has revealed.

In a recent article on Personnel Today, Adam McCulloch writes:

“About 20% of NHS England workers were from abroad in September 2023, 20.4%, up from 13% in 2016, and 11.9% in 2009, when the data was first made available.

According to the figures, the most common non-UK nationality in the NHS is Indian, comprising 10.1% of full-time equivalent nurses and health visitors, and 8% of doctors.

The number of consultants from abroad remaining fairly consistent at around 22%.

Pakistan, Portugal, Ghana, Egypt, the Philippines, Ireland and Nigeria were also the sources for many workers.

Chief executive of NHS Employers, Danny Mortimer, said the numbers show “how reliant the NHS has become on its talented international workforce”, adding that without them it “could have very easily buckled under the pressures it has been put under”.

But despite the influx of health professionals from abroad there are 120,000 jobs empty across NHS England including 42,000 in nursing, and 9,000 in medicine.

Assistant director of policy at the health charity The King’s Fund, Alex Baylis, said: “Since professional training takes several years, the NHS will be highly dependent on recruiting from overseas for the next five years, and retaining current staff, if vacancies are to be filled.”

This week the Royal College of Nurses sounded the alarm over the declining number of candidates for nursing courses in the UK, adding to fears that homegrown skills are in decline in the health sector. There are also fears that the 66% rise in the immigration health surcharge will make the sector unattractive for health workers who did not arrive here on the health and care visa.

Last year, the NHS long-term workforce plan was published, pledging to halve the number of foreign national doctors over the coming 15 years and double the number of medical school places for home-grown graduates.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “International recruitment has a valuable role in helping the NHS deliver its world-class care, but it is important we boost the domestic workforce and decrease our reliance on agency staff and overseas workers. Backed by £2.4bn, the plan will double the number of medical school places, almost double the number of adult nurse training places, and increase the number of GP training places by 50% by 2031.”

Domestic workforce development

Sharing his view, Roger Clements, chief growth officer at Matrix workforce management, said a large part of the answer lay in domestic workforce development and retention strategies:

“While the NHS long-term workforce plan aims to address these challenges by doubling medical school places and expanding nurse training, its success hinges on a holistic understanding of staffing dynamics. We must acknowledge that international recruitment alone cannot alleviate the systemic issues plaguing the NHS.”

To improve recruitment barriers to staff mobility needed to be removed, said Clements. He added: “The NHS England’s work on the Digital Staff Passport, particularly the successful pilots at Blackpool Teaching Hospital, demonstrate the practical applicability of such initiatives. The recent structural changes in the NHS to Integrated Care Systems also point to a promising future momentum toward creating a more frictionless workforce mobility model, enabling regions to more freely manage workforce to free up capacity and improve patient throughput.

“In the pursuit of a sustainable healthcare workforce, embracing diversity, investing in domestic talent, and fostering a supportive environment for all healthcare professionals is crucial. By reframing our approach from mere reliance on international recruitment to bridge the gap there needs to be comprehensive workforce planning that can build a resilient NHS that meets the evolving needs of our communities.”

Originally published Personnel Today | February 2024

Photo by Ian Taylor on Unsplash