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How practices can plan for summer cover

16 May 2024

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Practices can avoid being left short-handed during the summer holiday season if they start planning for cover in plenty of time. Recruitment specialist Ash Higgs from MCG Healthcare advises on the steps to take

As summer approaches and more staff book leave to go on holiday, practices can face the seasonal problem of staff shortages. This can lead to disruption in patient care as well as increased workload for remaining staff putting them at risk of burnout.

Finding the right balance between ensuring employees take their well-deserved breaks and maintaining delivery of high-quality healthcare services can be challenging.

But it’s an entirely manageable issue not least because it’s an expected one.

To avoid problems during the summer months, practices managers should start planning holiday cover months in advance and not leave it till the last minute.

The benefits of doing this are:

  • Continuity of care. Patients rely on consistent care, and sudden absences due to staff holidays can disrupt this continuity. Planning helps you avoid interruptions by ensuring that adequate staffing levels are maintained.
  • Maintaining service levels. Planning for holiday cover ensures that essential services continue to be provided at the same standard, even during peak holiday times when staff availability may be reduced. Patients should not experience any degradation in the quality of care or access to services due to staffing shortages.
  • Patient safety. This is paramount. Taking steps to ensure there are enough qualified personnel available to handle the number of appointments at your practice not only means patients can continue to receive timely and appropriate care but also helps prevent potential medical errors or adverse events that could result from understaffing.
  • Employee wellbeing. It is extremely important that staff members can take time off without feeling guilty or that they are leaving their colleagues short-staffed. This contributes to employee satisfaction and wellbeing, reducing burnout and turnover rates in the long run.
  • Financial planning. If you know in advance that you will need to rely in external resourcing solutions for cover and that will cost the practice extra money these can be budgeted for earlier rather than later, helping cashflow.

Here are our top tips for summer cover planning:

1.Discuss leave requirements with your team members as soon as possible

The first step is to speak with all salaried staff members and ensure they have booked their holidays or have provided line managers their preferred holiday dates. This information will help gauge the amount of cover required. Encouraging staff to book their holidays early by reminding them that requests might be denied if left too late can be helpful.

2.Explore if gaps in the rota can be filled within the team

If there are clear gaps in the rota, the first approach should be to explore what solutions can be found internally. Check if any salaried staff members are willing and able to provide cover where you need it though be mindful of their worklife balance so as to prevent potential burnout.

Consider offering incentives or rewards to staff members who are willing to work during peak holiday periods or take on additional responsibilities to cover for absent colleagues. This can help boost morale and encourage teamwork.

Another option is to get in touch with your known locum bank or healthcare professionals from neighbouring practices and primary care networks (PCNs) to explore their availability.

3.Work with a reputable agency

Engaging with a trusted healthcare staffing agency can be a valuable strategy, particularly when internal solutions are not available. While often viewed as a last resort, agencies can provide a safety net to ensure adequate cover. Transparency and open communication with the agency about requirements and ongoing efforts to explore other options are crucial. A reputable agency will work collaboratively, managing locum expectations and cancelling shifts, if necessary, without last-minute disruptions or hidden charges.

It’s important to say that building a strong rapport with a reliable agency throughout the year can pay dividends during peak times like summer. By fostering a trusted partnership, practices can benefit from the agency’s expertise and access to qualified healthcare professionals when needed.

4.Optimise schedules

Review appointment scheduling practices and adjust as needed to better distribute the workload during periods of reduced staffing. This may involve extending appointment intervals, offering more evening or weekend hours or temporarily limiting non-essential services.

5.Communicate with patients

Keep patients informed about any potential changes or disruptions to services during the summer months. Provide clear communication channels for them to reschedule appointments or seek alternative arrangements if necessary.

6.Contingency plan

Develop contingency plans to address unexpected staffing shortages or emergencies that may arise during the summer months. This could involve having backup lists of available locums or establishing partnerships with nearby practices or PCNs for mutual support as mentioned in tip two.

7.Carry out a post-summer evaluation

After the summer period, conduct a thorough evaluation of the cover planning process. Gather feedback from staff and patients, analyse data on staffing levels and service delivery, and identify areas for improvement for the following year. Reviewing historical data from previous summers can also provide valuable insights into staffing trends and needs during this period, allowing for more accurate planning.

In conclusion, advance planning, open communication and a collaborative approach involving internal staff, locums, neighbouring practices and staffing agencies can help healthcare practices navigate the summer season smoothly.

Ash Higgs is managing director of recruitment agency MCG Healthcare