NHS changes, and the state of research in nursing

Since publishing my last post the Health and Social Care Act has come into force in England. For a frontline NHS worker’s views on what this means, check out this commentary by East London GP Dr Youssef El-Gingihy. Personally I’m glad to be living and working in Wales. I am pleased to say that here there is still government support for an NHS which is funded, planned and provided with the public good in mind.

Elsewhere, within my corner of nursing (the academic bit) an editorial by David Thompson and Philip Darbyshire which appeared in the January issue of the Journal of Advanced Nursing has provoked a series of robust, just-published, responses. These have variously been penned by Bryar et alGallagher, Ralph, Rolley, White and Cross and Williams. JAN also carries Thompson and Darbyshire’s rejoinder, through which the responses are responded to.

The debate has a number of elements. In their editorial Thompson and Darbyshire argued that the quality of academic nursing has declined, and that some nurses working in some universities occupy positions of seniority which their experiences and qualifications have not prepared them for. They also accused those they termed the ‘killer elite’ of running departments as managerial fiefdoms, without tolerance for critical enquiry or dissent. This month’s responses include pieces both for, and against, the Thompson and Darbyshire position. Interested readers can follow all this up for themselves through the links I’ve given above, and I won’t attempt to summarise the full range of views offered.

What I will say is that, for all sorts of historical and contextual reasons, it remains remarkably difficult to sustain a career as a nurse doing research. Funding streams for nursing and midwifery departments in UK universities are largely earmarked for teaching, and relatively few university-based nurses have had opportunities to study for research degrees. Amongst those who have completed doctorates many have found it hard to progress to become independent researchers. Large numbers appear to have returned to roles which do not include significant research components. Only a handful of departments have a critical mass of research-active nurses and midwives, leaving the majority vulnerable when key people leave or retire.

But we have to keep at it. What nurses do touches the lives of millions, every day of the year. Research has an important part to play in improving the nursing contribution: from finding out ‘what works’, to learning about the experience of people on the receiving end of nurses’ services, and onwards to establishing how care might best be organised. Taking a research idea and turning it into a proposal which stands a chance of securing funding through open competition is tough (ask a scientist or a historian: it’s just the same for them), but if we truly want a sound base for nursing practice then this is work which has to be done. And as I am currently learning all over again, actually doing research once funding has been obtained is never as straightforward as the textbooks would have us believe.

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