· 2 min read · Features

Working Time Directive causes a headache for the health sector

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The NHS is becoming increasingly concerned as it struggles to prepare for the European Working Time Directive, which will limit the working week to a maximum of 48 hours.

As it is not due to come into force until 1 August, the situation is still fluid, but many health organisations, including the British Medical Association (BMA) and the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS), have expressed concerns about the implications for junior doctors. In applying to all workers, this Directive does not take into account the unique working practices of junior doctors in the UK, as they complete their training in a clinical environment.
 
Although the UK will retain the right to opt out of the Directive, this is not straightforward in hospital workforce planning because doctors work in teams on a rota. All NHS organisations have therefore been directed to prepare hospital rotas in compliance with the 48 hour maximum, in preparation for 1 August. 
   
And although the Department of Health has notified the European Commission of its intention to derogate from the 48 hour limit, this is not a get-out clause - it still means a maximum working week of just 52 hours until 2011, and for a small number of services, until 2012. 
 
With an RCS survey published yesterday suggesting that one in ten juniors feel pressurised to lie about their working week in order to comply, it is clear that there are still big challenges for HR professionals and workforce managers. 
 
HCL is a specialist health and social care recruiter to the NHS and private sector and we are experiencing a steep rise in demand for both locum and permanent placement doctors as hospital managers try to prepare for a potential staffing shortfall come 1 August.  In fact we have seen demand rise by as much as 30% in our permanent placement division. 

An obvious solution would be to drive international recruitment programmes of appropriately qualified doctors, and that is exactly what we are doing.  But since Government changes to the Highly Skilled Migration Programme now make it more difficult to recruit even the most highly qualified overseas doctors, the medical staffing workforce is essentially being squeezed from both directions. 

Of course no one wants a return to the days of junior doctors working 120-plus hour weeks  - patients should always be seen by an alert and well-rested doctor.  But this sweeping EU Directive, coupled with bigger bureaucratic barriers to overseas recruitment, creates a real challenge for HR and staffing professionals in healthcare. 

Many HR professionals have already made the valid point that it's essential for the UK to retain its flexible labour market in these challenging economic times, and surely nowhere is this more vital than in patient care. 

At HCL we are committed to working closely with hospital HR managers and personnel officers to meet their staffing needs with qualified and high calibre doctors.  We must all work together to ensure that the Directive in no way compromises patient care.

Kate Bleasdale is executive vice chairman at HCL