Nursing beleaguered?

Catching my eye earlier this week was an interview in The Guardian with Jane Cummings, Chief Nursing Officer (CNO) with a place on NHS England‘s National Commissioning Board. Under the header, ‘Nobody can say care is brilliant all the time’ the article opened with this understated quote:

‘It was very clear that nursing was getting a bit of a bad name and it felt like the profession was being quite beleaguered and criticised.’

Nursing certainly has been under siege. Responses to descriptions of poor care have included the three year Compassion in Practice strategy introduced by the CNO and her Director of Nursing counterpart at the Department of Health, Viv Bennett. It is in this document that the 6Cs are described:

It is also in this general context, but specifically following the publication of the Francis Report into Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, that the proposal was made that student nurses should spend a year doing health care assistant (HCA) work before beginning their training. This government plan has proven mightily controversial, and when announced provoked immediate broadsides from (amongst others) June Girvin (a nurse, and Pro Vice Chancellor at Oxford Brookes University) and Jackie Kirkham (a health visitor and researcher at Edinburgh University). Now it has drawn a closely referenced rebuttal from the Council of Deans of Health. Here is what the Council says in its conclusion:

The proposals for HCA experience prior to joining a pre-registration nursing programme are underpinned by a set of assumptions about nursing education and selection of prospective students that is deeply flawed. It paints a picture of students who have never had experience of caring and little interest in patient care, picked out for their grades by a group of academics in total isolation from staff working in clinical services. The message from current practices and the NMC Standards that govern them is that this mental picture needs to change. In particular, the assumption that students are not recruited for their values and that students do not have prior care experience are incorrect.

What about the nub of the proposal: that exposure to the clinical frontline as a HCA will create better nurses? The evidence here is equivocal at best. What care experience does seem to do is give prospective students exposure to the reality of working in healthcare and so it may reduce attrition from programmes. But there is also evidence that working as a HCA can socialise prospective students into poor practice and inhibit their development as nurses. Unless the evidence is looked at carefully, these proposals could therefore embed rather than challenge poor patient care. As the pilots of the proposals are developed, care must be taken both to recognise existing practice and carefully test assumptions against the evidence.

So, nursing practice and nursing education are in the spotlight, and the profession has responded. Senior members have asserted a set of fundamental values (the 6Cs), and in resisting the year-as-an-HCA idea have reminded people of the differences between what nurses and other health care workers do.

Nurses discomforted by this heightened scrutiny might consider their position alongside that of other public services workers. Social workers draw attention to the problem they face of being ‘damned if they do and damned if they don’t’. Then there are teachers, who fear the erosion of their professional standing as former servicemen and women prepare to enter the classroom without having to study for degrees. Back in the health service, some doctors (psychiatrists, in this instance) express concern over threats to their role and identity, whilst the profession as a whole is accused of greed.

We are therefore in good company. Other workers know what it is like to be told they have collectively fallen short, and understand how it feels to have their status undermined. Status-knocking sometimes happens because professional groups engage in ongoing division of labour skirmishes, as I have drawn attention to on this site before. But nursing’s current predicament, in which we are charged with having a ‘compassion deficit’ and sacrificing a commitment to care in the pursuit of academic credentials, is different.

Perhaps nurses have finally lost enough of the untouchable, ‘angel’, image (no bad thing, in my view) to now be viewed as ‘just’ another professional group in whom trust is conditional. We control entry to our profession, expect degrees from new entrants, have university departments and lead interprofessional teams and whole services within the NHS. In turn, we must expect to face questions when things go wrong, and to justify why we do practice and education in the ways that we do. For the record, I strongly favour system explanations for what happens in the health service (including its failures), see no evidence that student nurses no longer care and much prefer practitioners to be educated than not. But I also think we must expect, and should prepare for, more ‘bashing’ in the future.


4 thoughts on “Nursing beleaguered?

  1. This is a great summary, Ben and thank you for the reference to my blog. I agree that the time has well passed to see nursing for what it is – a complex, multi-faceted profession that demands intellectual capacity, self-knowledge, and constant educational improvement. The ‘angel’ image should have been put to bed years ago. It serves no-one, least of all patients, to correlate lack of compassion with increased educational attainment. How much more dangerous to be compassionate, but ignorant of the consequences of ones actions.

    1. Thanks for reading and for commenting, June. And I agree with what you say. I never could understand the idea that more education means less compassion. How does that work, exactly? All the best, Ben.

  2. Thank you for the link to my blog also, Ben. I do think that the conflation of caring-as-quality with particular nursing tasks is an insidious way of undermining nurse education and moving the profession backwards to a task-based ‘handmaiden’ role. I hope that a strong nursing leadership emerges that can challenge this.

    June, the education/caring negative correlation always mystified me too.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Jackie. The hunt for the origins of the Law of Inverse Relationships between Education and Caring Nursing must continue, I see! All the best, Ben.

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