Health boards have paid out more than £110million in the past four years to plug shortages of medical staff in Scotland’s hospital wards.
Spending on locum doctors soared from just under £19.6million in the year 2006-07 to almost £36.9million in 2009-10, new figures have revealed.
Agency doctors can cost the NHS up to £104 an hour compared with £11 for internal staff, depending on grade and time of shift.
Opposition politicians described the figures as “shocking” last night.
In the NHS Grampian area, the amount spent on agency doctors increased from £448,602 four years ago, to more than £3.2million in 2009-10.
The spending on locum doctors in NHS Tayside rose from £788,902 to more than £2million over the same period.
In the NHS Highland area spending increased from more than £1.9million to £3.4million.
Last night Labour health spokeswoman Jackie Baillie said the costs were “not sustainable” in the current economic climate.
She said: “These figures are shocking. The Scottish Government needs to have a very hard look at why health boards are spending so much more money on locum doctors.
“When the soaring cost of locum doctors is set alongside the high number of cancelled operations and the fall in the number of hospital beds that has taken place in the past four years it suggests that the SNP have been poor stewards of the NHS.”
Conservative health spokesman Murdo Fraser said better planning and procurement was needed to cut costs.
He said: “It is perfectly clear that we can find those substantial efficiency savings without jeopardising our vital frontline services.
“Every penny found in efficiency savings is important as we strive to improve the health and wellbeing of NHS patients.”
Health bosses said the expenditure was necessary, and blamed increases on a variety of factors.
NHS Grampian said a rise in spending from £448,602 in 2006-07 to more than £2.6million in 2007-08 was down to changes in immigration rules which forced many staff to return home.
A spokeswoman said: “The jump was due, in the main, to changes in the immigration and permit-free training laws which made it far more difficult to retain non-UK and non-European Economic Area doctors in this country who had previously provided locum cover.
“Many of our locum doctors had to return to their country of origin when these laws came into effect in 2006-07.”
NHS Tayside’s medical director Dr Andrew Russell said the most up-to-date figures put the health board’s spending on locum doctors at £1,869,000 to the end of February 2011.
He said: “Locums provide a valuable resource so we can cover planned gaps in our staffing such as annual leave and those unavoidable occurrences where there are sudden, unexpected vacancies.
“NHS Tayside reviewed its practices for utilising locum doctor services last year and this includes an instruction to consultants to explore all other options before utilising the services of a locum agency doctor.”
Mr Russell said the health board had experienced difficulty recruiting specialist paediatric, psychiatry and anaesthetic doctors due to a national shortage of staff.
He added: “Our locum agency expenditure has, in the main, been due to filling gaps in these areas.”
NHS Highland associate medical director Dr Ken Proctor said an assessment of locum usage was under way in order to cut costs.
He said: “With regard to these specific figures, direct comparisons cannot be made between 2008-09 and 2009-10 as in this year the locum costs for Argyll and Bute were, for the first time, incorporated into the overall costs for NHS Highland.
“In addition, because of the fact that many of our doctors work in small teams we may need to employ a locum as cover when one of them is off and this may not be the case with larger teams in more urban areas.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said progress was being made in reducing expenditure on agency doctors.
She said: “In the last quarter health boards have reduced medical agency costs by £3million. We expect to see further savings through the introduction of ‘doctor banks' – a bank of NHS-recruited doctors who will be used to supplement staffing rotas, where needed.
“As has been seen with nurse banks, NHS doctor banks will ensure high quality, safe and effective care for patients and better value for money.
“Using the nurse bank has saved the NHS over £19million since it was created.”