The number of nurses who want to work in west Hertfordshire hospitals is increasing – with the number of vacancies having dramatically decreased.

Just three years ago, one out of three ‘band 5’ nursing posts at West Herts Hospitals Trust were unfilled.

That forced the trust to rely on more expensive temporary staff from agencies – costing up to £37million a year.

It was said to have a significant impact on both the patient experience and staff morale.

Since then, the trust says it has worked to recruit new staff and to keep hold of existing staff – despite the pull of higher wages in London.

Now they have reported the ‘band 5’ vacancy rate on all their adult wards, at both Watford General and St Albans City hospitals, has dropped to zero.

Band 5 nurses make up the bulk of the nursing workforce and are trained to care for complex and unwell patients and to administer medication.

It’s the first time all these posts have been filled for a number of years.

It’s also an improvement from March, when the trust reported that the same figure was 12.6 per cent.

On Tuesday (September 3), the achievement was reported to a meeting of the county council’s impact of scrutiny advisory committee.

West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust director of communications Louise Halfpenny told the committee: “We have recently had a zero per cent vacancy rate – so work to recruit nurses in particular is going well.

“It's quite impressive when we’re in a market where people can go to London for higher wages.”

The committee heard about the improvement as part of an annual process to scrutinise health care provision by the county council.

In March the West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust was one of five healthcare providers that appeared before the county council's health scrutiny committee. They were subject to a number of recommendations by councillors.

At the time, councillors were concerned that there was too much focus within the trust on ‘process’ rather than outcomes. And they recommended a change in focus.

They also recommended that the trust worked with key partners to ensure that simple tasks – such as blood tests – were carried out in community settings.

Following the meeting, the trust assured the committee it had a clear action plan to address recommendations from the Care Quality Commission’s inspection.

It said it had commissioned Healthwatch to work with the trust to review ‘patient experience’.

It pointed to new ways of improving patient care that would reduce the need for patients to attend hospital.

These include plans for some services – such as muscoskeletal, adult ophthalmology, ear nose and throat  and community gynaecology – to be commissioned directly through the CCG and available elsewhere.

At the meeting, Ms Halfpenny told the committee that West Herts Hospitals Trust was an organisation that was focussed on the patient experience.

She said the new chief executive had increased Care Quality Commission ratings at previous trusts – and they were determined to do the same at West Herts.

Among newer initiatives she pointed to follow-up phone calls that were now made to patients following their discharge from hospital – to make sure they were safely at home and that their package of care was in place.

She said staff surveys have shown an increase in terms of staff morale.

At the meeting Liberal Democrat Cllr Kareen Hastrick said: “It was quite obvious from the report we were given that not enough weight was put into the patient experience . . . I am pleased to see that’s been addressed.”

Councillors accepted that all of the recommendations had been acted on and completed.