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‘It’s time for the NHS to embrace flexible working’

As the Royal College of Physicians (RCP Cymru Wales) publishes the follow-up report to a virtual workshop with physicians across south-west Wales, doctors are calling on the Welsh NHS to focus on the positive changes that have come from the pandemic and avoid returning to old ways of working.

Most doctors want flexible working to continue after the pandemic, but NHS workforce shortages present a key barrier.

Flexible working, remote clinics and working from home are all becoming more important to NHS doctors, as expectations around work–life balance change. This has enormous implications for the medical workforce, and the Welsh government should expand training and medical school places as soon as possible to avoid staff shortages in the NHS in the coming years.

Expanding medical school places is the best long-term solution to addressing shortages in the clinician workforce.

NHS organisations across Wales need to develop workforce strategies that prioritise staff wellbeing and a high-quality work–life balance. Where staff want to work flexibly, or from home, this should be encouraged wherever possible.

During our virtual visit to Hywel Dda and Swansea Bay health boards, consultant and trainee physicians told us:

  • Doctors must be given every opportunity to learn. Virtual working should ensure medical education becomes more flexible and accessible, especially in remote and rural hospitals.
  • The NHS must prioritise staff wellbeing, compassionate leadership and mental health. We need to raise awareness and remove the barriers to seeking help.
  • NHS health boards must share learning and experiences more effectively and work in a more united way to improve patient care across Wales.
  • COVID-19 has allowed a lot of clinicians to become more involved with research and innovation. Dedicated time, regional working, formal teaching and mentoring would ensure these opportunities are accessible for all clinicians.
  • Every clinician has a role to play in reducing health inequalities. The NHS should target interventions for struggling communities and improve access to healthcare for everyone.

Dr Olwen Williams, RCP vice president for Wales said:

‘There is so much we can learn from the past 18 months. The NHS workforce has given everything, and in return we’re calling for more flexible working, better clinical engagement, more remote access working and more support for overworked and exhausted staff. More and more doctors want to work less than full time, but we simply do not have enough medical staff on the ground to enable part-time working. We’re hearing the worrying news that NHS organisations in Wales are starting to end flexible working practices – which began during the pandemic – because of staff shortages. This reflects short-term thinking and will do nothing to encourage doctors to stay in the Welsh NHS.

‘Health board executives and senior management must listen to their clinicians. If we can make the Welsh NHS a better place to work, we will persuade more doctors to stay and work in Wales. There is a wider cultural shift happening: trainee doctors want to work part time and we need to find a way to make that happen to attract people into the profession and retain them. It’s vital that we urgently expand medical school places to train more doctors.’

A consultant physician working in the Welsh NHS said:

‘Our health board has undergone massive transformation [and] senior clinical engagement has been lacking at times. Working flexibly can be so much more productive because of the lack of interruptions. The impact of home schooling and the burden of care on working parents is not well recognised. It is time for the NHS to embrace flexible working.’