AYRSHIRE health board's top boss has said the NHS in Scotland is in the midst of a 'reputational crisis' - as she laid bare staff recruitment and retention challenges post-Covid.

Giving evidence to the Scottish Parliament's Health, Social Care and Sport Committee this morning (Tuesday, March 21), Claire Burden detailed some of the strains on local services amid the recovery from the pandemic.

The discussion formed part of a series of meetings organised by the Holyrood committee looking at the performance and financial sustainability of various NHS boards across the country, as well as key issues related to workplace culture and workforce.

During her briefing to MSPs, Ms Burden - chief executive of NHS Ayrshire and Arran (NHSAAA) - appeared to criticise news reports highlighting health board failings, and suggested more of the media spotlight should be focused on positive stories within the NHS.

"It would be fair to share that nationally we have an NHS reputation challenge," she said.

"Within the media, it's not [seen as] a great place to work, people are under constant pressure. But from our experience as chief executives, I have exceptionally dedicated staff who genuinely love their jobs and we don't get the opportunity to talk to that.

"Individually, we work hard on our social media to try to raise the profile of the dedicated people holding this together for us but it gets lost in the other national things that are going on.

"We desperately need, particularly as rural health boards, to keep people in our patch and for them to have lifelong careers.

"That is absolutely what we are wedded to but we are very mindful of this backdrop of people not choosing the NHS being greatly influenced by the media."

Ms Burden acknowledged the current working climate within the health system post-Covid is "tough", adding that anxiety and stress are "key drivers" in staff absences.

And she said work is ongoing to encourage more staff to train and stay within the system in a bid to overcome the recruitment and retention challenges.

She said: "This is the first year nursing has gone to clearance [for higher education applications], so the idea that we are not filling all of our university places for our future nurses is something that we need to tackle for Scotland.

"We need people genuinely choosing healthcare as a profession because it is lifelong rewarding.

"We understand that we are in recovery and there are pockets of exceptional stress but there is a lot going into the supporting of our workforce.

"Retention and recruitment are equally as important as internal culture and leadership."

Responding to Ms Burden's comments regarding media influence, Gillian Mackay MSP said: "I will be the first one to stand up every time and say that they are good careers to go into and that this is not the reality in every single department in every single hospital.

"However, it is really important that when we are being told about these conditions by staff that we make sure we are addressing them, so that these workplaces are supportive for absolutely everyone."

Ms Burden also said that the pandemic has contributed significantly to a "backlog in maintenance programmes" within the Ayrshire health board region, and stated that "some reform has slowed up over the last three or four years" resulting in "underlying infrastructure weaknesses being a little bit more exposed going into 2023/24".

Reducing a £26 million deficit, cutting 'Covid legacy' beds from hospitals, and tackling a 500-strong nursing vacancy list were also cited as key challenges at the moment.

The NHSAAA chief added: "We have some ageing estate; when I came to the system, caring for Ayrshire was about preparing the system for a new hospital and it's quite clear that that's not going to happen in the very near future.

"At its peak in 2022, we had 8,553 patients on our surgical waiting lists. We now have 7,947.

"We are at 99 per cent of our pre-Covid rates in our outpatients, and 78 per cent of pre-Covid levels in terms of surgery.

"We weren't at these levels at the beginning of 2022, so it's taken a while to get there. Whilst it's only a modest swing, it is positive that we have started to address a modest reduction in total numbers.

"Our ambition is to be at 90 per cent of pre-Covid levels."