Leading article

High cost of agency health staff a matter of concern

At a time of severe constraint in public finances, it is important that all budgets are managed in an effective way to ensure best value for money.

Certainly, this is particularly the case in the health service which, we are told, is under considerably strain as it tries to cope with increasing demand.

In such circumstances and with such a large-scale organisation, there needs to be a strategic approach to spending decisions, making sure staff numbers are at optimum levels to deliver the highest standard of service within budget.

New figures showing that more than £200 million has been spent on hiring doctors and nurses from private agencies over the past five years to fill gaps in the system, will be viewed with concern.

The bill for locum doctors alone in Northern Ireland is £150 million with some specialists earning three times more than a staff consultant.

One of the key issues with recruitment agencies is the cost involved.

Stormont's Public Accounts Committee has previously criticised private companies for ``dictating inflated rates of pay for covering shifts.''

It has to be recognised that agencies have a role to play in ensuring safe staffing levels in our hospitals, but their use should be regarded as a stop gap measure and not the norm.

Heavy reliance on temporary nurses brings with it other difficulties such as a lack of continuity and adds to the pressure on existing staff.

It is clearly an issue which is not confined to one hospital or trust and reflects recognised problems in delivering health care across a wide geographical area.

Decisions over the number of hospitals and the centralisation of services are bigger considerations but it is essential health service managers get to grips with spiralling costs.

The public rightly expects that all health service spending is as cost effective as possible.

In this context, the enormous cost of hiring agency staff has to be a matter of concern.

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