When people consider a career in the National Health Service or the wider health sector, they often tend to think about familiar occupations: doctor, nurse, midwife.
Other healthcare roles are less well known. For example, there is a wide range of specialist disciplines, staffed by skilled professionals who provide expert, high-quality care to patients and service users across the country. Known collectively as the allied health professions (AHPs), they include therapeutic and diagnostic radiography, speech and language therapy, orthoptics, podiatry and operating department practice. Collectively, AHP staff make up the third largest employment category in the NHS – and their numbers are increasing. The Allied Health Professions Federation reports that there are 158,000 AHPs working within a range of surroundings including hospitals, people’s homes, clinics, surgeries, the justice system, local authorities, private and voluntary sectors and primary, secondary and tertiary education.
These professions require specific higher education qualifications approved by the relevant professional regulator, usually the Health & Care Professions Council. But their low profile relative to other healthcare occupations means that prospective university students are often not aware of AHP study and career options available to them, and may therefore not consider them.
This has a knock-on effect. Over the five years to 2017, the NHS created almost 12,000 new allied health posts, an increase of 15.7 per cent. However, many AHP posts remain unfilled. Orthoptists, for instance, are in great demand in London and the south of England, with high numbers of vacancies. Some professions, such as diagnostic radiography, and prosthetics and orthotics, are on the government’s Tier 2 shortage occupation list of skilled jobs which UK employers struggle to fill. As this suggests, there are plenty of career opportunities awaiting qualified professionals.
There are positive moves afoot to raise the visibility of AHPs generally. Last week saw the first national ‘Allied Health Professions Day’ (hashtag #AHPsDay), which showcased the vital work AHP professionals do to improve health and wellbeing. This should also help to raise awareness of educational and career opportunities.
But there is much more to do. This part of the healthcare education sector faces significant recruitment and sustainability challenges which are affecting both students’ prospects and UK healthcare more widely. These bear primarily on issues of scale and sustainability. A number of health disciplines have comparatively low levels of course applications, and small numbers of students. Relatively few universities and colleges deliver pre-registration programmes leading to AHP professions. Moreover, these providers are unevenly distributed across the country: this limits the pool of potential applicants, especially among students who wish to study close to home.
What the Office for Students is doing
The Office for Students is working in partnership with Health Education England, universities and colleges, representative and professional bodies and others to tackle these challenges.
We provide funding to higher education providers, contributing to the additional costs, over and above student tuition fees, of nursing, midwifery and allied health courses.
Beyond this, we are working to ensure the sustainability of the smaller and more vulnerable AHP disciplines. With the College of Podiatry and other partners, we have established a £3 million programme – Strategic Interventions in Health Education Disciplines (SIHED) – which addresses this issue on a number of fronts.
Part of the programme is focusing on four specific disciplines which are taught only a few universities or colleges across England: podiatry, therapeutic radiography, orthoptics, and prosthetics and orthotics. We want to encourage these providers to come up with new ways of attracting and retaining students.
Earlier this year we set up a challenge fund inviting proposals for innovative projects. The first six, announced in June, included a University of Brighton proposal for ‘pop-up’ podiatry schools, giving prospective students the chance to sample courses on the treatment of foot disorders, and a project at the University of Liverpool which will use virtual environments as part of therapeutic radiography training.
At the same time, we are supporting work to raise awareness of allied health professions amongst prospective students. Last month the first fruits of this work were seen with the launch of an awareness-raising campaign, ‘I See the Difference’. Health Education England has also developed an online tool to help people explore which roles in health might be most suitable for them.
We have also commissioned research with the aim of improving our understanding of student demand for AHP courses. In particular, we want to understand the challenges and opportunities for participation amongst mature students, a student demographic historically well-represented in these subject areas.
Common purpose in partnership
Our investment is part of our broader aim to support a diverse, innovative and high-quality higher education sector, and to enhance graduate outcomes and employability by equipping students with the skills, knowledge and qualifications they need – in this case, to pursue a rewarding career as an allied health professional.
It also brings wider social, economic and health benefits. Ultimately, our work, and the work of universities, colleges, and other government and professional bodies, contributes to the dynamic national workforce the country needs for its hospitals, businesses and communities.
These various initiatives are mobilising innovation, vision and commitment in a common purpose. Partnership is key to their success. Through close and collaborative working across the higher education and healthcare sectors, the needs of current and future students and the requirements for the health workforce can be met.