How will NHS knowledge and library staff contribute to the delivery of the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan?  

Sue Lacey Bryant, Chief Knowledge Officer reflects on how NHS knowledge and library staff contribute to the delivery of the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan and invites NHS system leaders to maximise their use of these business-critical services.

With the publication of the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan, forward-thinking NHS leaders will be asking how they can make the most of the skills and services offered by knowledge and library specialists to support them in shaping the workforce of the future.

The Workforce Plan is about ensuring the NHS has the right number of people, with the right skills and support in place. However, this is not enough. To deliver high quality and efficient patient care, it is also essential that NHS staff use the right knowledge and evidence at the right time. The fact is, that knowledge and library services have a business-critical role to play to underpin the success of the Plan.

The numbers speak volumes:

  • The Workforce Plan sets out the ambition for significant growth in the total NHS workforce over the next 15 years, at 2.6–2.9% a year. This will see an incremental expansion of the NHS permanent workforce from 1.4 million in 2021/22 to up to 2.3 million in 2036/37. (p21) Knowledge services will need to expand accordingly to meet the needs of staff and learners.
  • Delivery of the Plan is based on an ambitious labour productivity assumption of up to 2%. (p10) This calls for sustained investment in workforce, technology, infrastructure and innovation to enable the NHS to work differently. (p22) Knowledge services can make a real contribution to this agenda.

It has never been more pressing for the NHS to maximise the skills of librarians and knowledge specialists.  By working with clinicians, service managers and those commissioning healthcare services they have a real impact on the cost and quality of healthcare services.

How will health knowledge and library services help?

“Applying knowledge into action is the currency of a successful healthcare organisation. Taking the ‘heavy lifting’ out of getting evidence into practice to improve the quality of care, NHS knowledge and library teams offer the gift of time to healthcare professions.” This is how Dr Navina Evans, Chief Workforce, Training and Education Officer at NHS England, introduces the Knowledge for Healthcare strategy.

To meet changing local needs, the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan calls for sustainable place-based approaches which maximise collaboration and cooperation.  This is as true for knowledge and library services as for every other element of the health system. 

There will be no One Size Fits All response. Knowledge and Library teams will want to unpack the implications and gain insights from local stakeholders to shape and plan service development. Collaboration across organisational boundaries will be needed to get the right services at the right scale in order to support an expanded clinical workforce as well as waves of new trainees, including apprentices.

Focussing on clinical professionals

Planning for significant increases in the numbers of doctors, nurses, midwives, public health, allied health professionals, the psychological professions, pharmacy, dentistry and healthcare scientists, NHS education leads will have a long, long list of issues to address.

Knowledge and Library Services will be part of the solution. Education leads are encouraged to reach out, at an early stage, to make sure that these services are incorporated as part of the overall Planning. For any clinical educators less familiar with what is on offer, take a look at some of our NHS knowledge and library animations. A 2-minute introduction is sometimes a good place to start!

There are a raft of policies that NHS leaders may find helpful. These include recommendations to improve the staff ratio for the number of qualified knowledge and library specialists per member of NHS workforce, indicative guidance for placement providers on funding local NHS Knowledge and Library Services in England and recommendations about developing suitable library service space to meet the changing needs of healthcare staff, learners and educators. 

Here are some of the resources that we have developed for NHS employers and leaders.

Supporting the NHS to address the productivity challenge

To meet the productivity challenge, NHS organisations will need to make best possible use of evidence from research and also encourage healthcare staff to share and implement good practice. This is where the expertise of knowledge and library specialists is business-critical, making a difference to productivity from Board to ward.

Without efficient and effective access to high-quality evidence to inform clinical and managerial decision-making, health professionals would be under even more pressure. NHS leaders can only gain by advocating the benefits of working with knowledge and library colleagues within their organisation. The Gift of Time animation and another on The benefits of working with Librarians and Knowledge Specialists speak loud and clear about the impact of knowledge specialists on productivity alongside quality.

Naturally, Integrated Care Systems are centre stage of the Workforce Plan, playing a critical role in driving productivity and value for money.  Our interactive poster sets out 9 Steps that ICSs can take to ensure decisions are underpinned by evidence. It signposts key knowledge mobilisation tools to improve knowledge management, provide clinical decision-support, share staff ‘know-how’ – and more.

Enabling healthcare teams to work differently

The dramatic increase in the size of the workforce, and the numbers of training places needed to achieve this, have captured the headlines. Certainly, the increase in training places is part of the solution and will have many implications for knowledge and library services on the ground. However, the Plan also focuses on enabling the workforce to work differently – maximising the benefits of new technology as well as new therapies and treatments.

What more can knowledge specialists do to support the NHS to drive these innovations? How are they already helping clinical teams keep up to date, learn about new tech, evaluate innovations and share know how? Do existing services need to be tweaked, or more actively promoted, to healthcare staff? How can leaders help? 

Focussing on the health and wellbeing of the NHS workforce

We know that retaining healthcare staff is crucial. Anecdotally we understand that the quality of a Trust’s knowledge service can be seen as an indicator of organisational culture and so help to attract clinical staff to apply for posts. Similarly, when combined with great training opportunities, proactive knowledge services help retain staff.

Embedding the right culture around learning, professional development and wellbeing are all areas where health knowledge and library services play a valuable role, day by day. Occupational Health and HR and OD teams may wish to promote our Uplifting resources for the NHS from the NHS and Your Health Collection.

Contributing to Learning Health Systems

The Long Term Workforce Plan is explicit that “Locally, systems should be adopting the principles of learning health systems, and ensure they are systematically gathering and applying evidence and data to support continuous learning, and aid clinical decision-making and improvement.”(p104-5).

A report by Dr Tom Foley on Supporting Learning Health Systems mapped the work of NHS Knowledge and Library Services onto the Learning Health System Framework. He noted that “A Learning Health System captures data from practice, generates knowledge from the data and puts the knowledge back into practice to improve care. … This requires capabilities in digital (data and technology), knowledge management and quality improvement. Knowledge and Library Services are the heart of knowledge management within the NHS.”

Knowledge services need to be right there, integral to effective learning environments, central to innovation and quality improvement.

Emerging issues

There are certainly plenty of other questions for knowledge and library service managers to work through with clinical and education leads. These three stand out:

Apprenticeships: How well are knowledge and library services plugged into existing apprenticeship schemes used by the organisations they serve? Working knowledge and library teams, how will employers ensure that their apprentices have the right knowledge resources and services, including information skills training?

Tackling health inequalities: Trust leaders may not be aware of the involvement of NHS library staff in initiatives to improve health and digital literacy, working through public libraries and community partners. The benefits being achieved through this partnership approach may not be widely appreciated. In addition, are you using our geodata on health literacy to target wider initiatives to tackle inequalities?

Primary and community care and prevention: An ambition of the Workforce Plan is to move care upstream, and deliver more NHS care out of hospitals, will increase demand in the community. (p37) The goal is to equip the workforce with the right skills and knowledge to shift care towards prevention and early intervention. (p103)

Organisations will want to think about what this means for their knowledge and library services. Is there a need to expand the customer base and the service offer?  How will local leaders support NHS Knowledge and Library services to pivot to support all parts of the workforce?

We already have some tools to support role redesign including to introduce Primary Care Librarians. We have worked with a vanguard of primary care knowledge specialists over the past couple of years.  

Taking imaginative approaches

Ultimately the scale of change promised by the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan requires imaginative approaches to help knowledge services to:

  • Support the system to meet the productivity challenge
  • Develop knowledge service provision for new generations and increasing numbers of healthcare professionals as they progress through flexible careers
  • Make the case for local investment in knowledge services with the right resources, the right team and the right roles.

It’s an exciting time, with new imperatives to deliver the Knowledge for Healthcare strategy to support the whole workforce – staff, educators and learners alike.  There is much to think about, much to discuss. There is much that organisational leads and knowledge and library service managers can do, working together to put the NHS workforce on a sustainable footing for the years ahead.

Sue Lacey Bryant

Chief Knowledge Officer

NHS England