As the rapidly changing face of healthcare provision presents new challenges for workforce planners, Skills for Health has created labour market intelligence manuals, constantly updated online

Workforce planning managers such as Elizabeth Hodgson of the Northamptonshire health community workforce team are finding the scope of their activity is expanding.

Traditional aspects of workforce planning - based on an analysis of factors influencing the demand for personnel, their potential supply routes and the gap between the two - continue to play a pivotal role in maintaining an adequately staffed NHS. But the rapidly changing face of provision is bringing new dimensions to the work of the planning team.

"This will see us working more closely with service managers and heads of departments as they become more involved in their own workforce planning," says Ms Hodgson. "There are patient-centric models, such as one developed by NHS North West, that break this activity down to determining the skills and competences required for the delivery of their services now and the redesigned roles that respond to that need. The most familiar example is the introduction of the assistant and advanced practitioner roles, with a much more flexible skill-mix for things like the Hospital at Night [hospital out-of-hours clinical cover] project.

"The challenge is so many departments are still working with teams composed of traditional posts or jobs that do not necessarily reflect the most efficient or productive methods for providing care," she says.

Modernisation as a priority

Modernisation is very much to the fore however, as Ms Hodgson points out, with the recent launch of a regional project to consider introducing more assistant practitioners across a wide range of care venues and pathways.

Closer to home, in the north of the county, the PCT's intermediate care team has put together a portfolio of skills and competences as part of a role redesign scheme for band 3 support staff.

"The support workers are acquiring the skills - fully referenced against the knowledge and skills framework and linked into NVQs - as part of taking on a new generic rehabilitation assistant role," says Ms Hodgson. "This will equip them to provide an effective home care package for people coming out of hospital.

"Rather than there being a physiotherapy assistant going in one day, an occupational therapy assistant the next and a dietician assistant the day after that, the roles have been combined in the new generic worker, improving continuity and efficiency," she says. "The new role also brings the opportunity for career progression with the introduction of a band 4 co-ordinator post. This will free up capacity within the specialist professional team and introduce further efficiencies."

Both of the modern roles, at generic and co-ordinator level, have been developed using a skills and competences approach set to become increasingly familiar to workforce planners.

Considering and interpreting the numerous drivers - national and sub-regional - that bring about the need for new posts such as the rehabilitation assistant is complex and time-consuming. The task has been made somewhat easier with the publication of Skills for Health's regional labour market intelligence manuals.

"When I first started in workforce planning," says Ms Hodgson, "I used to scrabble around trying to bring together all kinds of datasets about the current workforce and the broader Northamptonshire population - features such as age, birth rate, percentage of full-time and part-time staff, migration trends, educational levels, shortages in professional groups, disease prevalence. This in addition to policy and other drivers from a whole range of various websites."

Information in one resource

"What Skills for Health has done is bring all of this together in the one place," she explains. "The labour market intelligence manual for the East Midlands for instance provides easily manageable narrative detail and bullet points on all the data and drivers for the region. It is extremely useful to be able to reference that at a high level, benchmarking what is happening with us in the county against what is going on across the East Midlands."

So what does current data suggest health services in Northamptonshire might be facing?

Clearly inward migration has been an issue. As much as 40 per cent of the translation services provided to the PCT between March 2007 and March 2008 were to Polish people.

"This was a massive increase unmatched by anything else," Ms Hodgson notes. "What we now have to do is better understand what specific health needs they might bring with them and also consider how we might offer them language skills where needed so that they are not excluded from the labour pool."

The regional manuals are complemented by an online resource offering constantly updated information and will assist regions and counties in responding more promptly to demographic changes and other drivers.

"A lot of the work we are doing now focuses on engaging service managers and people in professional development to look at how they can use workforce planning in the future," says Ms Hodgson. "Some of this will involve setting up training for these managers so that they can learn how to embed workforce planning into all other aspects of running their services. An open, easily accessible intelligence resource will greatly help such development."