Statistics gathered from across UK hospitals have shown that the use of agency staff declined steeply during the pandemic as Trusts embraced new ways of staffing their wards, including the digitisation of NHS internal staff banks and more effective pooling of resources between Trusts in the same region.

Reliance on third-party agencies decreases

Staffing data from 32 NHS sites across London, Wales, North West England  and Yorkshire was collected and analysed by health technology company Patchwork Health. It found that in these Trusts, which all had access to a digital internal staff bank, the number of shifts released to external agencies fell by an average of 34% over the four months leading to April 2020.

The reduction in reliance on agency staff indicates that hospitals’ own staffing banks were able to fulfil staffing needs during the crisis. This was further supported by increased collaboration between hospital sites and neighbouring Trusts, which saw redeployment of clinicians ramped up in line with need and facilitated where possible with fast-tracked or e-passporting of credentials.

Trend shows no sign of abating

During May, as pressure on hospitals began to ease, the data shows that only 11% of the total advertised shifts went to third-party agency staff – a 10% decrease from pre-pandemic levels. Of these, only 5% of COVID-19 related shifts advertised were covered by agency staff.

This data turns received wisdom on its head: that an increase in demand does not necessarily mean an increased reliance on agency staff. The figures indicate that better coordination within and between Trusts can drive down third-party agency reliance and create more resilient and flexible in-house staffing models.

Dr Anas Nader, NHS doctor and CEO of Patchwork, comments:

“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, staff banks  played a critical role in the national response. Thanks to their established relationships with hospitals and their ability to deploy quickly, they ensured we had enough healthcare staff on every ward, for every shift. Each shift advertised on the Patchwork Health platform during the pandemic was booked by a bank worker within 24 hours, demonstrating just how effective the internal bank model can be. This efficiency meant that safe staffing levels could be guaranteed and NHS Trusts could reduce the spend associated with external agencies.”

For hospital managers, digital solutions have resulted in significant efficiencies for internal staff banks. Automated shift booking systems are replacing the disjointed WhatsApp-and-email processes previously relied upon, and ‘problem’ shifts can be identified in advance and staffed accordingly.

Dr Nader adds:

“As a result of this trend and these financial savings, hospital trusts should now be looking to invest in the long-term expansion of their own internal staff banks. These staffing pools must be inherently collaborative, with the agility to deploy a flexible workforce to meet the demands of a 2020 healthscape. Further success depends on the equipping of staff banks with the correct digital tools to collect and leverage insights, so healthcare teams can control and learn from their own data. A focus on barrier free collaboration and a person-centred approach to staffing will allow our hospitals to emerge from this period stronger than ever before.”

By Lisa Baker, Senior Editor

Senior Editor Lisa Baker is the owner of Need to See it Publishing Group, providing contract news for business and news sites across the UK. Lisa is an experienced HR writer and commentator, editing HR publications for more than 5 years.