The NHS is encouraging retired doctors to return to the health service to help bring down long waits for elective care, making it easier and more flexible for staff to return to the NHS as part of the Long Term Workforce Plan.
The NHS Emeritus pilot scheme, first announced by NHS chief executive Amanda Pritchard in June, will initially run for a year across England and help to bring down waits for elective care, but if successful has the potential to be expanded to cover other work areas.
It is expected Emeritus consultants will be able to start carrying out appointments from next month following the full registration process, which includes pre-employment checks and face-to-face interviews with NHS Professionals.
A cloud-based platform has been developed which links recently-retired consultants – who still hold a licence to practice – with secondary care providers who need additional help with their waiting lists.
Providers upload the activity they would like supported, which could range from outpatient appointments, specialist advice requests and education and training support.
The Emeritus consultants can then express their interest in undertaking the specific work listed, and providers choose the consultant whose skillset and availability best matches the appointments they need covered, which are scheduled and arranged with patients in the normal way and can be carried out in-person or remotely.
More than four-fifths of people on the waiting list require an outpatient appointment – such as a follow-up for cardiology or rheumatology – rather than a surgical procedure, and the new platform means consultants carrying out remote appointments could be based anywhere in England, which can help those hospitals in areas with workforces shortages in a particular specialty, higher demand for services, or more remote areas where travel is difficult for patients.
The platform aims to provide trusts with an alternative to using agency staff, while allowing experienced specialists who are nearing retirement but want to keep working in the NHS longer, or recently-retired consultants who want to re-join, with a route back in with more flexibility.
Workforce data shows about 1,000 consultants leave the NHS for retirement each year.
The new tool is one initiative being rolled out to help deliver the NHS Elective Recovery Plan, the most ambitious catch-up programme in health service history, helping to cut the longest waits for routine care.
Despite significant demand for services, coupled with over a year of disruptive industrial action resulting in more than one million appointments and procedures being rescheduled, the latest published data shows the number of patients waiting for elective care in November was down to 6.39 million, with the waiting list for procedures and appointments down to 7.6 million (from 7.7 million in October).
The progress was down to NHS staff delivering more than 1.63 million treatments in November, the highest monthly activity on record and around 150,000 more than the same month before the pandemic (1.48 million in Nov 2019).
Thanks to the hard work and innovation of NHS staff, waits of over 65 weeks have more than halved since their peak in June 2021 (from 233,051 to 94,563), and the NHS continues to make progress toward the aim of eliminating waits of more than one year, with these now less than 5% of the waiting list.
The initiative follows one of the aims of the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan, which highlights how the pandemic showed the enormous value of returners, and that steps should be taken to improve flexible opportunities for prospective retirees to keep them for longer, and make it easier for those who have already left NHS employment to return.
Stella Vig, NHS national clinical director for elective care, said: “The NHS prides itself on its hard-working and committed staff, and it is often the most experienced and knowledgeable clinicians who are lost to the NHS once they retire, even though they still have a lot more they can give to benefit patients.
“Many have said they want to be able to keep giving back to the health service once they have retired, but in a more flexible way – through the NHS Emeritus initiative, we can provide an opportunity for consultants to continue to work in the NHS in a way that fits in with their life and schedule, and ensures the NHS can still benefit from their skills and knowledge, whether that be through providing training and education, or continuing to see patients and help add much-needed capacity as we work toward our aims of bringing down the longest waits for elective care.
“It’s a simple concept, but one that we hope will benefit everyone taking part – and we envisage that this is just the beginning, with the potential to broaden NHS Emeritus out to a wider cohort and to include different types of work in the future, which could benefit thousands of patients across the country.”
Health Minister Andrew Stephenson said: “The first ever NHS Long Term Workforce Plan sets out how we will put the NHS on a sustainable footing and address existing vacancies.
“Returning consultants will bring invaluable experience and knowledge, and the new digital platform will match highly-skilled consultants with the NHS trusts that require their expertise, providing high quality care and alleviating pressures on high demand areas.
“This will help us cut waiting lists – one of the government’s five priorities.”
For providers like Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, initiatives like NHS Emeritus will allow them to offer more outpatient appointments.
Emily Wallace, Head of Medical Staffing at Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said: “We think this is a great initiative and are looking forward to it going live, and will be looking to use the NHS Emeritus scheme to bring on board consultants to take on some of our outpatient work.
“We believe it will have a positive impact on reducing waiting lists and help to manage the backlogs in elective care that have built up over the last few years.”
Consultant urologist Simon Williams is currently employed by University Hospitals of Derby and Burton, and going through the final stages of the registration process for the Emeritus scheme ahead of retiring soon. He said: “Having spent 32 years working in the NHS I have built up a wealth of experience and skills. NHS Emeritus is a great way to continue to share that and still see patients, but in a more flexible way.
“The programme will enable me to help trusts across the country using remote consultations, not just those in my local area, which could really help free up capacity for their consultants to see more patients in-person and help bring down some of the longer waits for routine appointments.”
Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers part of the NHS Confederation said: “Employers are focused on being as flexible as possible to ensure that the skills of retired clinicians are available to our teams and patients. Government reforms to NHS pensions have helped this effort, and this initiative from NHS England adds important national weight and profile to the objective.”
Dr Sarah Clarke, president of the Royal College of Physicians, said: “At a time when the NHS is facing unprecedented demands, paving a way for our recently retired experienced doctors to be able to contribute their skills again as emeritus consultants is a very welcome step forward.
“As outlined in RCP’s Later Careers Guidance, we know that more than a third of physicians who are not yet retired say they want to retire early, but almost 60% of physicians would delay retirement if they could work flexibly or reduce their hours, highlighting that integrated flexible working would greatly improve retention. We will closely follow the Emeritus pilot and very much hope that it offers a flexible opportunity for experienced physicians to once again provide vital care for their patients while importantly reducing waiting lists.”
All statutory pre-employment checks and mandatory and statutory training are carried out before consultants become fully registered on the platform to ensure patient safety, and the programme will be open to recently-retired consultants with NHS experience, who have an active registration on the specialist register and the GMC registry, who also hold CCT.
More information on NHS Emeritus for both providers and clinicians can be found here: NHS Emeritus (nhsemeritusconsultants.org)
Source: NHS / Public Health England