NINETY per cent of health leaders believe that understaffing is putting patient safety and care at risk, according to a new survey by the NHS Confederation.
More than four-fifths (83 per cent) also said the NHS Pension Scheme was having a detrimental impact on the workforce, with just under 70 per cent saying it is damaging patient care.
The views emerged in a survey of 131 health leaders in England, including chief executives, chairs and directors from NHS trusts, clinical commissioning groups and local integrated care systems.
More than three-quarters (76 per cent) of respondents said that supporting and growing the NHS workforce should be a critical priority, ranking it highest at a time when there are more than 100,000 vacancies among clinical and nursing staff.
The results come as the latest performance statistics for the NHS show that demand for services has continued to rise, with the NHS treating more people than ever before. However, key targets for hospital care and A&E have hit their worst levels since the standards were introduced in 2004.
More than half (58 per cent) of those surveyed believe this winter will be the worst on record for NHS waiting times and performance.
While the existing targets have helped reduce treatment waiting times, 65 per cent of the leaders surveyed described the measures as not “fit for purpose”. Seventy per cent welcome the expected move towards more ‘nuanced’ access standards for the NHS in England. However, the Confederation’s independent sector providers were not supportive of a change to current standards.
NHS Confederation chief executive Niall Dickson said: "Workforce gaps, the growing social care crisis and historic underinvestment are the biggest threats to improving care for patients and transforming services, and each of these issues needs attention, as do the pension rules which are discouraging some doctors from taking on extra work and encouraging others to take early retirement."
He said health leaders had sent a clear message about the need to reassess NHS targets.
He added: "Targets have been a force for good and should not be abandoned, but we need to move away from the current cliff-edge approach where several minutes either side of a target represent success or failure. Any changes must underline the need for rapid access to treatment but in a way that ensures patients with the most urgent needs are given priority.
"There is no quick fix for all the challenges facing the NHS in England but there is a direction of travel laid out already in the Long Term Plan, and it is at least encouraging that no political leaders are proposing further reorganisation."
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