Tuesday, 27 January 2004

Questions (656)

Bernard J. Durkan


774 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Health and Children the plans he has for the recruitment of sufficient staff in various disciplines of the health service; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2169/04]

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Written answers (Question to Minister for Health and Children)

The chief executive officer of each individual health board has responsibility for the management of the workforce, including the appropriate staffing mix and the precise grades of staff employed within that board, in line with service plan priorities, subject to overall employment levels remaining within the authorised ceiling. Hence, the recruitment of health service staff in 2004 will take place in the context of the implementation of each health board's service plan.

The Deputy may wish to note the increase in the approved employment level from 1997 to end 2003 was 27,985 — 41% — bringing the approved employment ceiling to 95,800 in whole-time equivalent terms, excluding home helps.

The Deputy will be aware of developments such as pay increases, improvements in career structure and enhanced opportunities for professional and career development, which have all played a part in increasing staffing levels. The implementation of the pay recommendations of the Public Service Benchmarking Body will make a further contribution to recruitment and improved retention. Overseas recruitment by health agencies has, over recent years, also contributed significantly to meeting the workforce needs of the health services, particularly in professions where qualified staff are scarce, to meet the human resource needs of the health services.

The implementation of these and similar developments will make an important contribution to strengthening the capacity of the health services to recruit and retain the high calibre professionals required in all disciplines to fill challenging and demanding roles central to the delivery of quality health and social care services to the public. It is, however, important to emphasise that staffing requirements overall must be viewed in the context of the substantial increases in employment levels achieved in the health services in recent years.

Comparing the latest available employment levels — September 2003 — to those in 1997, there are 22.2%, or 6,063, more nurses, 36.8%, or 1,832, more medical-dental personnel, and more than double — 112% — the number of health and social care professionals, an increase of 6,971, employed in the health services. This is a considerable achievement which reflects the success of the steps taken to increase the attractiveness of employment in the health services and also the ongoing measures being taken in areas experiencing shortages of fully trained and qualified staff.

I am also conscious that, in view of the large numbers of staff employed and the unique nature of the services being delivered, it is imperative that a coherent, strategic approach to workforce and human resource planning be developed further and aligned closely with strategic objectives and the service planning process. Planning for the development of new and existing services in the future must be soundly based on a robust and realistic assessment of the skill and human resource needs to deliver these services. The issue of skill mix is also of paramount importance in meeting human resource needs. Enhanced skills mix by matching skills to service needs benefits patients and empowers health personnel to reach their full potential and optimise their contribution to quality care.

I am, however, well aware that in addition to effective planning to ensure the continued availability of a qualified, competent workforce, it is also necessary for the health service to become an employer of choice to further improve potential for recruitment and retention. While the record number of staff recruited into the health service in recent years shows the progress made in this regard, even more can be achieved.

Having recruited and developed such a large number of staff in recent years, it is a priority to retain them by offering a challenging and rewarding career path. In the human capital and skills intensive health sector, retention has been identified as a key issue in better people management. The continuing implementation of the Action Plan for People Management is playing a crucial role in improving retention and reducing turnover of skilled staff, while providing the opportunity for each member of the workforce in the health sector to maximise his or her contribution to the creation of a quality, patient centred health service in line with the objectives of the health strategy.