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Podiatry Workforce and Patient Care

Volume 734: debated on Tuesday 20 June 2023

I will call John McDonnell to move the motion, and I will then call the Minister to respond. As is the convention for 30-minute debates, there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the podiatry workforce and patient care.

The background to this debate is a meeting I had with a number of local podiatrists representing the Royal College of Podiatry, so let me thank them for the briefing that the royal college has sent me. I want to talk about the development of a workforce strategy for podiatry.

To explain for those who may take an interest in the debate, podiatrists are highly skilled healthcare professionals. They are trained to assess, diagnose, prevent, treat and rehabilitate complications of the foot and lower limbs. They manage foot, ankle and lower-limb musculoskeletal pain, and skin conditions of the legs and feet. They treat infection, and assess and manage lower-limb neurological and circulatory disorders. They are unique in working across conditions and across the life course, rather than on a disease of a specific area.

A podiatrist’s training and expertise extends across population groups to those who have multiple chronic, long-term conditions, which place a high burden on NHS resources. The conditions largely relate to diabetes, arthritis, obesity and cardiovascular disease. In addition to delivering wider public health messages in order to minimise isolation, promote physical activity and support weight-loss strategies and healthy lifestyle choices, podiatrists keep people mobile, in work and active throughout their life. They contribute to the wellbeing of our economy and workforce.

Podiatry is intrinsic to multiple care pathways too, and podiatrists liaise between community, residential, domiciliary, secondary care and primary care settings. They specialise in being flexible and responsive, ensuring focused patient care, irrespective of the clinical setting. Podiatrists are at the forefront of delivering innovation in integrated care. They deliver high-quality and timely care, as well as embracing safe and effective technologies that lead to improved patient outcomes.

The role of podiatrists in managing diabetic foot complications is key. They play a vital role in the prevention and management of diabetic foot complications, which, at the last estimate, cost the NHS in England £1 billion a year. In the three-year period from 2017-18 to 2019-20, there were over 190 minor and major amputations per week in England. Of the people affected, 79% will be confined to one room within a year, with 80% tragically dying within five years. That is a shocking outcome for patients, and it is even worse than the outcomes for the majority of cancers we seek to deal with.

The impact of lower-limb amputations on patients’ quality of life and chances of survival are shocking, so we must do everything we can to prevent diabetic foot complications. We have to act in a timely and targeted manner to ensure that people have the best possible chance of living long and fulfilled lives.

It is estimated that by 2025, 1.2 million people with diabetes in the UK will require regular podiatry appointments if they are to remain ulcer, infection and amputation free.

I declare an interest as a diabetic, so I understand exactly what the right hon. Gentleman is saying. I am aware of the silent but vital work carried out by podiatrists throughout the United Kingdom. In my constituency of Strangford, a nursing home where funded podiatry appointments were cut was still visited by a podiatrist. He was able to attend, but he treated people without taking any money. Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that access to podiatry for the elderly in care homes should be fully funded and that they should not have to rely on family or kind-hearted podiatrists to get their health needs taken care of?

What I have discovered on my journey of finding out about podiatry, which I knew very little about before I met podiatrists in my constituency, is that of course people need professional care, and that care needs to be properly funded. There are volunteers, but we should not have to rely solely on volunteers; we need professionals leading the way. Podiatrists are skilled and trained in the prevention and management of diabetes-related foot complications. That is why many of us believe that they must be at the heart of the NHS plan to eliminate unnecessary amputations and the consequent avoidable deaths.

As I said, the broader cost of diabetic foot ulcers to the NHS is more than £1 billion per year—the equivalent of just under 1% of the entire NHS budget. Effective and early intervention for diabetic foot complications prior to ulceration could save thousands of lives and millions of pounds each year.

The situation in my area in Hillingdon exemplifies what is happening elsewhere in the country, which the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has mentioned. Hillingdon’s community podiatry service is part of the Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust. It is suffering from severe workforce issues, which is having a detrimental effect on the people delivering the service and those suffering from foot ulceration, infection and amputation.

The service is currently failing to meet its timescales for seeing patients at high risk of developing a foot ulcer. What should be a team of 13 clinical podiatrists is now just 3.5 full-time equivalents and three support workers. The immediate concern is the pressure that puts on the staff who remain and the impact it has on the patients who need a minimum of weekly wound re-dressings to enable healing and prevent infection and life-changing amputation. The opportunities to prevent life-changing and life-threatening complications are minimised by the shortage of staff.

We also have concerns that support workers are being asked to triage and treat people beyond their scope of practice due to the staff shortage. That is not a criticism of them, but it is the reality. We should be filling the service with professionals who are fully trained to deal with the range of complications that they might come across. The workforce challenge facing podiatry is the real issue.

There is a need for focused recruitment. As I said, it is estimated that by 2025, 1.2 million people with diabetes in the UK will require regular podiatry appointments if they are to remain ulcer and amputation free. In the absence of that, there will be a greater risk of premature disability and death. There are currently just under 10,000 podiatrists registered with the Health and Care Professions Council. That is just one per 5,500 residents in England, and that number is due to decline as a result of demographics.

Following the removal of NHS bursaries for student podiatrists in 2016, the number of undergraduates studying podiatry has declined by 38%. Prior to that, the student bursary was set at £9,000 a year and it covered the cost of tuition for a year. In 2020, in a welcome move, the Government reintroduced student bursaries, but at £5,000. That has caused a slight improvement in recruitment to the profession, but it falls far short of ensuring the future of the podiatry workforce that will be required to deal with the oncoming wave of severe diabetic complications coming out of the pandemic.

Another issue is that the average age of podiatry students on graduation is 32. The majority of students are pursuing a second degree, and the need for a second student loan is having a damaging impact on universities’ ability to recruit undergraduates to train as podiatrists. By leaving it up to the market, we face the prospect of not training the workforce required to meet the needs of an ageing population.

The other issue raised with me is the limited career progression in NHS settings. Of the podiatrists currently qualified in England, approximately 40% work in the national health service. It is projected that many of those podiatrists not heading for retirement are likely to move to work in the private sector in the next five years. The reasons cited for that include lack of career development opportunities; repetitive workloads, with limited skill mix; and high demand and low capacity to meet it, leading to what people consider are unsafe staffing levels and to staff burnout.

Expansion of the podiatric workforce across primary, community and secondary services may address some but not all of those issues. Support for workforce growth is critical, but support for those already qualified to progress to advanced clinical practice and consultancy is also critical to workforce retention and ensuring adequate capability in senior clinical, leadership, education and research roles.

We need policy to ensure closer working across providers and the delivery of a foot health strategy. There is significant opportunity to expand the foot health workforce to include non-registered roles, supported by qualified, expert podiatrists. There is also opportunity to consider alternative workforce models that are inclusive of podiatrists working in private practice or the wider foot health workforce in the third and voluntary sectors, for example. A clear workforce strategy is desperately needed now. It needs to explicitly underpin how the foot health workforce is optimally configured, funded, implemented and trained and what the core outcomes of foot health services must be to meet the needs of our future population.

Currently, there is no workforce strategy, no clear statement of aim, and no standardised set of core outcome measures informed by public health or policy. Clear foot health policy is urgently needed to maximise all the benefits that podiatry can offer across an integrated care system, before the profession becomes—as we predict it will—unsustainable, with staffing levels even more unsafe and avoidable patient harms, amputations and deaths relating to lower-limb disease rising dramatically.

I therefore have three key asks. First, I ask the Government to reinstate the £9,000 bursary for student podiatrists. If podiatrists are to be able to support the millions of people who will require their expertise, the Government must reinstate the full podiatry student bursary of £9,000 a year. That is essential if the workforce is to be secured and expanded for future generations. In the absence of long-term funding confidence, allied health professions such as podiatry are unable to commit substantial and consistent investment towards maximising recruitment and retention, both of which will be crucial in securing the future viability of this vital profession.

My second ask is for national collection of podiatry vacancy rates and inclusion of podiatry in workforce planning. Publishing a national workforce plan that considers future need for allied health professionals such as podiatrists must be a priority for the Government. That plan must take into account current trends in recruitment and retention and, for future needs-based public health, comorbidities and their impact on disease prevalence. A national workforce plan will also act as a crucial evidence base for the allocation of long-term workforce funding.

My third ask is for the guidance on integrated care system membership to be strengthened to include allied health professionals. The absence of national guidance or recommendations regarding which organisations and individuals should be included in integrated care partnerships has resulted in a patchwork of involvement for allied health professionals, including podiatrists, in integrated care decision making. Without their meaningful engagement in those discussions, there is a danger that the invaluable contribution podiatrists can make to the delivery of care might simply be overlooked. Strengthened national guidance on the make-up of integrated care partnerships, to include representation of allied health professionals such as podiatrists, should be developed and implemented at the earliest opportunity.

I conclude by thanking the professionals who work in my constituency, as well as those who work nationally. I recognise the pressures they are under and the valiant way that they cope with them.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd.

Let me say first how grateful I am to the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) for raising this important issue. He said that he did not know a huge amount about podiatry. I must say that I did not either, because I am not the Minister with responsibility for primary care, but I do have responsibility for the workforce. One of the powerful aspects of debates of this nature is that they force not only Ministers but the Department to focus on a particular issue and give Members from across the House—including the Minister —a crash course in it. As a result of my research ahead of the debate, I know far more about podiatry than I did yesterday. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that.

I know having undertaken that research—and, indeed, from my constituency inbox—that podiatrists are a hugely important part of the workforce. They are an invaluable part of our NHS, as the right hon. Gentleman eloquently set out. I join him in saying how hugely grateful I am for their vital work supporting patients day in, day out across our NHS. The Government know that personal care that is responsive to people’s needs is essential and the service that podiatrists provide to local communities is important in helping people maintain their mobility, independence and wellbeing.

As the right hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, early identification of foot problems helps to prevent or delay the onset or exacerbation of long-term conditions, thereby reducing the risk of wounds, infection and, ultimately, amputation. He also pointed out that foot problems have a significant financial impact on the NHS through out-patient cost, increased bed occupancy and prolonged stays in hospital. Working mainly at the heart of primary care, podiatrists are well placed to ensure patients receive a quality foot screening service, as well as the appropriate onward referrals for foot and lower-limb interventions.

The right hon. Gentleman correctly pointed to our ageing population. That is not exclusive to us; it is a global problem, certainly in the western world. I say “problem” but, actually, it is a great thing that people live longer. However, it is a challenge for health systems, because people are living longer with long-term conditions and complex needs that we need to ensure we can support and manage as a society. As the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, the need will continue to grow.

The right hon. Gentleman raised a number of issues but, with his permission, I will focus mainly on the workforce rather than on podiatry more generally. I recognise that the workforce remain under sustained pressure, having worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic to provide high-quality care for those who need it. I recognise that podiatrists’ role in supporting our NHS is as important as ever. It is vital that we support the workforce both now and in the future.

The right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) referred to volunteers. I have them in my constituency, and if it were not for the volunteer podiatrists who give their time every day of the week, free of charge, I believe the NHS would be suffering even more. That is why we need to push for the recruitment that he referred to.

I thank the hon. Member for his intervention, and I pay tribute to all those who volunteer. This is not the only area in our national health service where volunteers play an important role, but it is important that they are add-on and add value—supporting professionals as opposed to replacing professionals. That is why, at the heart of this debate, we must ensure that we have the podiatry workforce that we need across all four nations—although this debate is specifically focused, understandably, on England.

As the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington pointed out, demand for the NHS continues to grow. That is why we have already done a significant amount to invest in the education and training of our future workforce. NHS England—until recently, this was done by Health Education England—has worked extensively to enhance and modernise the podiatry profession. One central factor, which the right hon. Gentleman alluded to, is the development of the foot health standards for the education and training of the foot health support workforce.

However, I am certainly conscious that we have more to do. As part of that process, we developed the podiatry apprenticeship, which is a degree apprenticeship, and supported the implementation of that route into the profession. The numbers are still small, but they are growing, which is great to see. We are keen to promote that route into the profession, not least because it comes with significantly reduced costs for those taking part in the training.

With the promotion of more podiatry apprenticeships, we are offering a more diverse number of training options for students. Furthermore, the learning support fund, which the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington pointed to, provides all eligible nursing, midwifery and allied health professional degree students—including podiatrists—with a non-repayable training grant of a minimum of £5,000 per academic year. I say “minimum” because there is an additional hardship element to that of up to £3,000 per year, and additional support is available for childcare, dual-accommodation costs and, where appropriate, travel. The right hon. Gentleman specifically asked for an increase; there are no plans for that at present, but I will of course take that away and have a look at it.

I am here if the Minister needs any assistance in—I was going to say beating—negotiating the Treasury into submission.

I think I mentioned a figure of one podiatrist to every 5,500 people, but I think that I have got that wrong; I think it is actually one to every 55,000 people. That is a huge demand that is placed on podiatrists.

On the Minister’s point regarding the bursary, the British Society of Rheumatology pointed out in one of its briefings that an estimated £15 million a year would be saved on the costs of rheumatoid arthritis if sufficient support was given, particularly through podiatrists. In our argument or discussion with the Treasury, this is therefore an investment that will save money, and we know that directly from the evidence that has been provided.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. We are constantly looking at those spend-to-save arguments in areas in the health service where it makes sense to invest. Following this debate, I will gladly look at the podiatry courses and see how over-subscribed or under-subscribed they are, because that may—or may not—help to make the case.

I just spoke about training. Training is important because, of course, we need to see new podiatrists coming in to practise. However, as the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, retention is as important as recruitment. As important as increasing numbers of podiatry trainees is, it is also important to retain the highly qualified, highly skilled, experienced people we already have practising podiatry in the NHS.

I am determined—I know that the Secretary of State is too, because we have had this conversation many a time—to ensure that staff in our NHS feel supported and that the NHS works to ensure that staff feel valued, both by individual organisations and across the system. We are working closely with NHS England—and indeed, through NHS England, with individual trusts—to ensure that that is happening. We regularly meet staff to get a better understanding of how they could better feel valued and supported in their workplace.

The actions of the NHS people plan and the NHS people promise are helping us to build the kind of culture that will go a long way towards helping to support and hold on to dedicated and hard-working colleagues. That very much includes a stronger focus on health and wellbeing and, importantly, on strengthening leadership. People often say that they do not leave trusts or organisations but their managers, so we must make sure that management culture is right. We also know from speaking to staff that it is vital to increase opportunities for flexible working.

One of the right hon. Gentleman’s other asks was on the long-term workforce plan. He is absolutely right. To help us ensure that we have the right numbers of staff with the right skills to transform services and deliver high-quality services that are fit for the future, we have commissioned NHS England to develop a long-term workforce plan for the NHS for the next five, 10 and 15 years.

That high-level workforce plan will look at the mix and number of staff required across the country and will set out a number of actions and reforms that are needed to reduce those supply gaps and, importantly, improve retention. We have committed to publishing that plan shortly—and it will be shortly; I know it is soon. I am very keen to ensure that it is published, because I know how much work NHS England has put into it. In addition, the Chancellor committed that it will be independently verified. We have to make sure that we get it right.

The plan will also include projections for the number of professionals that will be needed, which goes directly to the right hon. Gentleman’s point—it will include podiatrists—and will take full account of improvements in retention and productivity that we plan and hope to see. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate. Through long-term planning, we are ensuring that the NHS has the robust and resilient podiatry workforce that it needs for the future.

The third and final question the right hon. Gentleman posed was on integrated care system guidance relating to allied health professionals. As tempting as it is to make policy on the hoof, that does not sit within my portfolio. I will commit to raise that with the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O'Brien), who is the Minister with responsibility for primary care. I will ask him to write to or meet the right hon. Gentleman.

We are working to ensure that we have the right people with the right skills in the right places and are working to ensure that they are well supported and looked after, so that they in turn can look after those who need our great NHS services and can keep delivering the great standard of care that people need now, but also in the future.

Question put and agreed to.