THE cost of locum doctors in Accident and Emergency units across North Wales has been defended by the region’s health board.
Statistics has revealed £83.3 million was spent by the NHS last year on locum doctors, mostly to cover weekend shifts in A&E, up from £52m in 2009-10.
The statistics were revealed following a Freedom of Information (FoI) request from the Labour Party, with shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham accusing the government of “gross mismanagement” of the NHS.
Three-quarters of the health trusts that run A&E departments responded to the request.
The figures requested by Labour were only relating to health trusts in England, but Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board (BCUHB) moved quickly to defend the role locum doctors play across North Wales, after an FoI in August 2013 revealed BCUHB spent £50.5m in the three years up to and including 2012-13, on 2,571 locum doctors and medics recruited from agencies.
A BCUHB spokesman said locum staff played an important role. “They help the health board run safe clinical services and make sure the care of patients is not disrupted across North Wales,” he said.
“Most appointments are to cover unexpected absences of regular staff due to sickness or other unforeseen events, for maternity cover or while we go through the recruitment process to fill a new post or one that has become vacant.
“In some cases locums are also used to cover longer term vacancies where it is proving difficult to recruit permanent staff.
“These are generally in specialties where there are shortages of staff at a national UK level.”
He added: “While there will always be a need for locum staff, we make every effort to minimise unnecessary expenditure.”
In response to yesterday’s figures, Dr Mark Porter, who chairs the British Medical Association Council, said doctors in the NHS faced “increasingly challenging, high pressured and stressful work environments, often with limited resources and gruelling workloads”.
“In some specialties, such as emergency medicine, this has contributed to a recruitment crisis and means that because existing doctors are working flat out to meet rising demand, an increasing number of locums are being used.”
But he added: "While locums have always been an integral part of the NHS workforce when there are periods of high demand or staff absences, they should not be used as a long term solution to gaps in the NHS workforce.
“As these figures suggest, they can be more expensive to employ than permanent staff, resulting in additional costs for an NHS that is already struggling with declining budgets.
“To stem this problem the government urgently needs to address issues around workload pressures, resourcing and work-life balance.
“Only by making working practices and environments safe and sustainable will the NHS be able attract and retain the required number and mix of doctors.”