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‘Growing imbalance’ in age profile of GPN workforce

‘Growing imbalance’ in age profile of GPN workforce

General practice nurses (GPNs) approaching or at retirement age account for a third of the workforce in England, latest data has revealed.

In contrast, the data from NHS Digital showed less than a quarter (24%) were aged under 40 – including less than 1% who were under 25.

The Queen’s Nursing Institute (QNI) said the figures showed ‘a major and growing imbalance’ within in the age profile of the GPN workforce.

The GP workforce statistics for April 2024, published last week, showed there were 16,946 full-time equivalent (FTE) nurses working across GP practices in England – up 0.6% (101) since April 2023. This was equivalent to a headcount of 23,229 practice nurses – down 0.4% (95) than April 2023.

The number of nurses per 100,000 patients also fell by 0.8% in the year April 2023 to April 2024.

Further analysis of the figures by Nursing in Practice found those aged 55 and above accounted for 33% of the GPN workforce in England.

In addition, the number of nurses aged 65 and above who were working in general practice in April 2024 compared to September 2015 – when records began – was up by 163 percentage points.

Meanwhile, those aged under 25 made up 0.8% of the workforce, those aged 25-29 made up 5%, those aged 30-34 made up 8% and those aged 35-39 accounted for 10%.

Figures also showed those aged between 40 and 49 accounted for 23% of the GPN workforce, while those aged 50-54 made up 15%.

Ellen Nicholson, registered nurse and general practice safety and learning lead at NHS Resolution, said: ‘Despite practice nursing being a favoured career choice for many experienced nurses, we are still seeing a deficit in younger newly qualified nurses who may not have opportunities to enter the primary care workforce.’

Ms Nicholson added that a key challenge for the NHS is ensuring that newly registered GPNs can benefit from flexible working and that the retention of ‘experienced expert nurses’ continues.

She pointed to the ‘great success’ of programmes like the ‘legacy mentor’ in the South West of England, which has seen experienced general practice nurses work as mentors to those who are new to the profession and ‘given the older nurses a new perspective’.

Dr Helen Anderson, registered nurse and nursing research fellow at the University of York, added: ‘General practice has long depended on an older nursing workforce, and faced imminent retirement bubbles, while experiencing issues around recruiting and retaining younger nurses.’

She said the reasons for this were ‘complex’ and pointed to ‘inequitable pay, terms and conditions and the lack of understanding of the level of skill, knowledge and education required to deliver complex nursing in general practice’ as examples.

Dr Anderson added that a ‘two-pronged approach’ is needed to retain experienced nurses, whilst enticing newly qualified nurses into general practice.

She suggested offering more flexible contracts, allowing experienced nurses to focus on ‘one or two’ specialised aspects of care, and employing nurses close to retirement in mentorship and educational roles in order to support nurses new to general practice.

‘The future of nursing in general practice is at a crossroads and an incoming government needs to focus on recruiting and retaining this important, evidenced and highly skilled professional group.’

Also responding to the data, a QNI spokesperson said: ‘The figures show a major and growing imbalance in the primary care workforce towards nurses at the later stages of their career.

‘On the positive side, these nurses will have a wide range of experience, often gathered in different specialisms and settings.’

The spokesperson recognised the ‘overall shortages’ across nursing in the UK and said this would be ‘a major issue for the next government to address’.

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