Persuading healthcare professionals to return to practice met with remarkable success among one group of trusts. Claire Grout describes how they did it

How can staff who have left the NHS be lured back?

And what are the best ways of promoting NHS careers to potential recruits? These are pressing issues for all employers in the service, which a group involving all trusts in Oxfordshire has been addressing on a county-wide basis for the last two years.

The recruitment and retention group was formed in summer 1998 to promote collaborative marketing between trusts in Oxfordshire. The initial focus was on promoting nursing opportunities, with accountability to the Oxfordshire directors of nursing services recruitment and retention group.

The group's activities were formalised in April 1999 with the appointment of a chair, development of terms of reference, and the identification of a project plan. Last 1999, this became multidisciplinary and included Oxford Brookes University and representation from the local health authority.

The aims were: to identify a comprehensive list of NHS employment opportunities in Oxfordshire; promote career development; encourage managers to review staffing roles and career opportunities; and develop a website which would be easily accessed by all staff, managers, educationalists and career advisers.

The group is focused on nurses, midwives, professions allied to medicine, pharmacists and healthcare assistants.

It consists of 20 managers representing nursing, pharmacy, physiotherapy, occupational therapy and radiography. It meets monthly. The group has:

organised roadshows;

held an open day at John Radcliffe Hospital;

developed a career-mapping project and obtained funding from the education consortium for an Oxfordshire healthcare careers adviser;

established a telephone inquiry line at John Radcliffe Hospital;

focused on the large-scale initiative, Return to Practice (RTP);

visited primary schools to provide information on careers in the NHS.

The Berkshire and Oxfordshire education consortium provided£98,000 for appropriate RTP courses, support for participants and the three-month appointment of an RTP co-ordinator.

The group decided to promote RTP opportunities heavily over eight months through roadshows and publicity in the local media with the aims of:

making the information about course provision accessible to those who are currently not practising;

actively recruiting to the courses;

finding out how many people wanted to return, and what they would need to help them return;

providing workshops to address the needs and concerns of RTP nurses;

establishing a 'hotline' number in which the co-ordinator can answer RTP enquiries and provide one-to-one help and action planning so that professionals can plan their return.

The frequency of the ENB 902 RTP course for nursing, midwifery and health visiting run by Oxford Brookes University has been increased from two to three times per year. In January nine participants began a three-week refresher course at the John Radcliffe Hospital aimed at nurses who have been out of practice for less than three years. It will now run three times per year. RTP courses in pharmacy, dietetics and radiography are being developed and a feasibility study of an RTP course for physiotherapy/occupational therapy is planned.

One hundred and one people who, at the roadshows and open day, had expressed an interest in returning to work, were sent questionnaires. Sixty-six replied. The results revealed that opportunities for flexible working was the key issue (see chart, left).Many had left the NHS for family reasons.

The group has identified the need to work with personnel and managers to develop opportunities for flexible working. Oxford Brookes University has employed a member of staff to track all returnees to ensure that they do return and are retained.

The group developed equitable salary replacement and mentorship-support costs across the professional disciplines for all the RTP courses and agreed for all RTP/refresher-course recruits to be paid for their practice based hours.

Overall, 317 people expressed an interest in returning or joining the NHS in the first three months of the group's activities. The charts show the results. The group does not yet have figures on how many have actually returned.

It is envisaged that the collaborative promotion of RTP courses and the 'hotline' will continue, with the costs shared between the trusts involved and with input from the new Oxfordshire careers adviser and steering from the Oxfordshire inter-trust group.

Working together, members have identified similar problems and local approaches to a growing national concern. There is an increased potential for difficulties to arise within any group, particularly those with a multiprofessional and cross-organisational remit. There may be tensions if one staff group or trust's needs take priority in driving the agenda. To minimise the tension the group will establish bi-annual priorities to account for current demand across the professions involved. This dynamic forum catalyses the generation of innovative ideas and the agreement to take action.

The benefits of working together have exceeded the initial expectations and scope of the group. Key factors which have contributed to the success have included:

commitment shown from members;

innovation;

partnership;

shared resources;

learning from previous experience;

an effective communication network;

ongoing monitoring and feedback;

timely and focused action;

reciprocal arrangements with external agencies.

A tremendous amount of activity followed by formal evaluation has occurred during the last 18 months.

Positive results have sustained the momentum for the group. I have found the multi-professional approach to recruitment and retention issues particularly useful and feel I have developed more confidence in dealing with other professions in addressing these issues.

Although there was a less positive outcome for my profession (pharmacy) from the recruitment roadshows than for some other professions, I feel that the benefit of demonstrating a multi-professional approach to the public was extremely valuable. And it was good to know that I was actively supporting other professions.

The group has proved to be an excel lent catalyst for collaborative activity. Many challenges still lie ahead, including strategies for retention of current and new staff. However, the group is confident that it will continue with its success.

Key points

A recruitment and retention group covering all trusts in Oxfordshire has identified opportunities for flexible working as the most important issue for staff considering a return to practice.

The group's activities have included roadshows, the setting up of a telephone helpline and refresher courses.

More than 300 potential returners and new recruits have been identified.