A European-wide conference held in Enniskillen recently examined how the health care sector can successfully recruit and retain high quality staff in rural areas across Northern Europe.

The Recruit and Retain project bgegan in June 2011 and involved officials from Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Norway, Scotland, Sweden and NHS Western Isles in Scotland (acting as Lead Partner).

The Enniskillen conference was organised by Co-operation and Working Together (CAWT) and NHS Western Isles.

Conference atendees discussed initiatives that are underway in other countries. These include: the development of short films to promote the social as well as the professional aspects of living and working in a peripheral area; further education courses such as Masters Degree level programmes; skills training for home care personnel in remote areas; and professional exchange programmes.

A Recruit and Retain Solutions booklet, published in May 2014 highlights that, in the South West Acute Hospital, the Western Trust has been working on the placement of an additional training doctor position by incorporating Emergency Medicine with Anaesthesia. This training programme aims to provide an opportunity for high quality ambitious medical personnel and help develop their skills in emergency care. It also aims to ensure a postgraduate placement strategy for peripheral health care facilities.

The booklet also states that CWAT has secured funding for two tele-robots to be placed in two border hospitals. These will be controlled remotely from other locations with the aim of bringing scarce clinical expertise to rural areas. The tele-robots are seen as a key way of retaining vital services and offering 24-hour support to otherwise vulnerable staff in the delivery of care. They will allow a specialist to project themselves to the remote location and to see, hear and talk as though they were actually there.

Initiatives undertaken by other peripheral countries are also outlined in the booklet. In Sweden, where there is a significant lack of GPs in rural areas and many medical students study medicine abroad, overseas students were offered one month’s work in one of the health care facilities in Västerbotten-midland with continuous availability of an experienced rural physician as supervisor. By summer 2014, this had resulted in five doctors educated overseas returning to work in rural Sweden. Swedish health officials also suggest interviewing and filming doctors already living and working in an area.

Greenland has historically relied on short term staff because recruiting to longer term positions has proved very difficult. Previous recruitment campaigns focused on the arctic experience, wildlife, icebergs and adventure, but this had the effect that employees came for adventure and not always the job. Health officials are now changing this to focus on attracting employees for the unique set of skills they possess, rather than just “selling” the lifestyle. Their new message is that their healthcare organisations are proud of their work and staff, and they have the ability to handle the challenges of that unique rural area.

A sign-on fee was suggested in the booklet, whereby staff would receive a bonus if they are actively engaged in recruiting new colleagues to their own unit.

Bernie McCrory, Chief Officer of CAWT said the cross-border body was “delighted to host the event.” Speakers at the conference included Professor Andrew Sim, ‘Recruit and Retain’ Project Director from NHS Western Isles in Scotland; HSE Manager, Tom Daly who is CAWT’s Director General; Dr. Neil Galbraith, Chairman of NHS Western Isles, and other distinguished speakers from across Europe and further afield.

The conference also heard from Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster who highlighted how the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) is continuing to invest in the development of telecommunication networks and extending the quality and reach of broadband services in Northern Ireland.

Opening the conference she said: “As a public representative for a rural constituency, I recognise the key role that access to good quality infrastructure and services can play in ensuring that highly skilled professionals chose to locate and remain in remote and rural areas.” Speaking to the Assembly later that day she said she would look at ways in which she could implement some of the initiatives which had been discussed, adding: “If people think that Fermanagh is a long way away, they should try looking at Greenland or Iceland.” The project is scheduled to complete in June 2014.