A record number of people are working for the NHS in Scotland but the number of vacancies for doctors, nurses and midwives have prompted claims of a “workforce crisis”.
NHS Scotland employed 163,848 medical and support staff as of December 31 last year, up 0.2% on 2017, according to official figures.
The overall number of medical staff in the Scottish NHS has increased in each of the last seven years.
However, the workforces of 10 of the 22 health boards in Scotland have shrunk in the past year and the number of unfilled vacancies has seen little change.
Government figures revealed 5.1% of nursing and midwifery posts – the equivalent of 2,395.7 full-time staff – and 415.5 consultant jobs for doctors and dentists were unfilled by the end of 2018.
The number of long term vacancies – posts unfilled for three months or more – was 635.9 full-time roles in nursing and midwifery while 254.8 consultant posts were also vacant for six months or more.
There were also 513 allied health professional posts vacant, compared to 372 the previous year.
Commenting on the NHS workforce figures, Health Secretary Jeane Freeman said: “I welcome that our overall NHS workforce, and nursing and midwifery staff numbers, have hit a new record high level.
“This year, student nursing and midwifery places will increase for the seventh consecutive year, also reaching a new record high level, with the intake rising by 7.6% to more than 4,000.”
She added: “I have been clear that I expect our health boards to do all they can to fill outstanding vacancies.
“Some vacancies are inevitable when a service is being expanded, however we recognise that in some specialties there are difficulties in recruitment.
“This is a problem experienced by health systems across the world, but we will continue to work with boards to support them to recruit the staff they need.”
Scottish Labour Shadow Health Secretary Health Monica Lennon said: “NHS staff regularly tell me they are exhausted and do not have enough time to give patients the care they deserve, and these figures show why.
“Thousands of vacant posts across our health services are unfilled, causing increased workloads for NHS staff around the country.
“The SNP Government has failed to properly plan the workforce needed for our modern NHS and we see this reflected in long waits for GP appointments, operations cancelled, waiting time laws broken and more patients left in pain.
“In government, Scottish Labour will make ending the NHS workforce crisis a priority by giving our health service the resources it needs and investing in our communities to end health inequalities.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat health spokesman Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP said: “Stubborn vacancies across the NHS are compromising care and piling work on other staff.
“The Scottish Government cannot continue to ask them to struggle on meeting demand without the support and resources they need.
“The SNP have spent more than a decade in charge of the health service. Staffing problems are off the chart but ministers are yet to produce a complete, credible workforce plan. Meanwhile, many doctors, nurses, dentists, therapists and radiographers are having to make do without fully staffed teams.
“The Liberal Democrats want to see the Health Secretary publish an annual report on workforce planning and lead an annual debate on it at Parliament. That way future problems can be identified and rectified before they take their toll on the health service.”
It was also revealed that the NHS workforce in Scotland is getting older.
The median age of the national workforce has increased from 43 to 46 over the last 10 years while the proportion of staff aged 50 and over has increased from 28.6% to 38.5%.
The Chair of BMA Scotland’s Consultant Committee said that the official figures are likely to hide the real scale of gaps in the NHS workforce, suggesting a “heavy reliance on locum doctors” is being used to cover vacancies.
Simon Barker said: “Vacancies – and long term vacancies in particular – continue to be an ongoing and worrying problem in the NHS. Too many posts are lying empty for far too long, and this is impacting on the care we as doctors are able to provide.
“There are just not enough doctors working in the NHS, which means those in post have to work doubly hard to cover the work of colleagues who simply don’t exist.
“It is vital the Scottish Government, and NHS employers take a long hard look at what is driving this shortage of consultants.
“We need urgent action to put the consultant workforce on a sustainable footing and ensure all doctors feel valued for dedicating their lives to caring for people across Scotland.”