• HEE is undertaking workforce strategy modelling taking part time working into account, chief executive confirms
  • Ian Cumming warns the NHS must prepare for more portfolio careers 
  • Workforce demand can be pushed down if the NHS is serious about prevention and productivity, Professor Cumming adds

Doubling the number of medical students is “not affordable” and could result in “too many”, the chief executive of Health Education England has said.

While speaking at a Westminster Health Forum event in London on Thursday, Ian Cumming said the education and training body was now trying to work out how many more medical students were needed.

The president of the Royal College of Physicians said we need another 7,000 [medical students] and I think doubling the number of people we need to be doctors in this country is probably not affordable on the current funding model,” Professor Cumming said.

He confirmed HEE would be factoring part time working into the modelling of its workforce strategy, which is due to be published alongside the NHS long term plan, and he stressed the same would be done for nursing and allied health professionals.

Professor Cumming also said HEE is currently exploring giving doctors more flexibility during training, by extending it to seven years rather than five, so trainees can spend time working in other areas.

“We’re going to see [portfolio careers] across all healthcare professions,” Professor Cumming said. “Let’s start preparing for that now rather than it be a surprise in five or 10 years from now when that becomes our biggest problem.

“To me, much of the NHS feels like a 1980s employer and that is not what we need to be doing to compete with many other employers who have moved on in leaps and bounds.

“I have an ambition to create a pathway where people can come in as a healthcare support worker to the NHS and leave as a consultant. It is perfectly possible to do that through apprentice routes and that is an objective we want to achieve.”

Professor Cumming reiterated comments he made in June regarding predictions about the demand for clinical workforce in the NHS over the next 10 years growing somewhere between 3 and 5 per cent a year.

“If we are serious about prevention and new ways of working and productivity, we believe we can get it down to 3 per cent, but if we carry on doing things as we do them now, we will be at 5 per cent and we don’t believe 5 per cent is affordable,” he stressed.

Professor Cumming continued: “We have worked through every professional group and the one group where we have the biggest problem is nursing. Do not be fooled by the belief we have a demographic timebomb. The number of people retiring every year is broadly consistent. This is people leaving at a much younger age.”

Professor Cumming also referenced five reviews that will form part of the long term plan and the workforce strategy, which will include a report on the mental health and wellbeing of staff due to be published in December and a review into artificial intelligence and robotics.

It emerged earlier this week that HEE would be made accountable to NHS Improvement to create a more coherent approach to workforce development.