Tag: Francis Report

Care work and health system complexity

Two interesting collections of papers have caught my eye in the last week or so. Davina Allen has edited an online volume of articles, all previously published in the journal Sociology of Health & Illness, addressing the sociology of care work. In her editorial Davina sets the scene with reference to the Francis Inquiries and concludes with this:

[…] in the wake of Francis the predominant response to raising the quality of care and compassion has been to focus on the attributes of individuals and wider regulatory arrangements. As we have seen, however, the kind of care that can be provided depends fundamentally on the social organisation of care work, which in turn hinges on what we (society) are prepared to pay for. Francis has called for national fundamental care standards, but this requires more careful attention to the models of care-giving practice that will sustain them, including care-giver roles, the inter-relationship of care work components and features of the organisational context. The papers in this collection reveal there are no easy answers to these questions, but the insights they yield make an important contribution to these debates. In bringing the papers together in this virtual special issue the aim is to both raise the profile of the individual contributions, but also their collective value to this critical issue of public and policy concern.

Meanwhile, Tim Tenbensel, Stephen Birch and Sarah Curtis have edited a special issue of Social Science & Medicine devoted to the study of complexity in health and health care systems. I have a personal interest here, as it is in this collection of new papers that my article Connections and consequences in complex systems: insights from a case study of the emergence and local impact of crisis resolution and home treatment services appears. Describing himself as ‘a sympathetic outsider to complexity theory’, Tim Tenbensel in his editorial closes with this:

[…] perhaps the most important conceptual issue for complexity theory seems to be the place of ‘top-down’ interventions in complex systems. Are they part of the landscape of complexity, or are they things that ‘impede’ the unfolding of self-organising, emergent phenomena? More sophisticated applications of complexity suggest the former answer, yet the will to control through linear, rational, prescriptive mechanisms remains an ever-present shadow – something that should be minimised – because it this a defining trope of complexity theory applied to the social sciences. This theoretical challenge is perhaps most pressing in contexts in which health services are directly funded from public sources.

My apologies to the doctoral students whose ‘complex systems’ module I taught a few weeks ago, who may erroneously have thought that I knew what I was talking about, but like Tim Tenbensel I regard myself as being a relative newcomer to this whole complexity approach. So I for one am looking forward to reading the other papers in this new collection, and to learning plenty that is new.


Vivas, research projects and the Welsh Government on the Francis Report

There’s plenty going on in the continuing baking sun this week. I was pleased to spend yesterday at Sheffield University (where I was once a student) examining, and recommending awarding, a doctorate addressing the use of problem based learning in mental health nursing education.

Meanwhile COCAPP is now generating data, and the RiSC project has reached a critical point as a search strategy is devised for its second phase. And tomorrow and on Friday I’ll be in the classroom with a group of professional doctorate students, talking and learning about systems and complexity.

Elsewhere, via the twitter account of the Minister for Health and Social Services, Mark Drakeford I’ve spotted the Welsh Government’s response to the Report of the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust Public Inquiry. I see there will be an annual Quality Statement for the NHS in Wales from next year, and a future NHS Wales Quality Bill.

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.

A brief correcting post on the education of nurses

Yesterday the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, declared that would-be nurses should spend a year doing hands-on care, working directly with health care assistants, in order to be eligible for funded nursing degrees. Today it occurs to me that large sections of the population may be labouring under the misapprehension that student nurses currently spend their whole three years sitting in classrooms. So let me join the queue of people who have already pointed out that, absolutely, they do not. In order to register, students are required to spend half of their time working directly in practice. This point, plus others, was very well-made by the University of Southampton student (whose name I cannot remember, unfortunately) who was interviewed on this matter on yesterday’s BBC News. Bearing in mind that nursing degrees are lengthy affairs (the terms are much longer than those followed by students of most other disciplines), the amount of time learners spend doing care work is already significant.

Cash for compassion?

After Francis, what is to be done? Should we employ new hospital staff, and improve the ratio of nurses to health care assistants? Invest in the development of a cadre of strong clinical leaders, equipped with the skills and vision to drive up quality? Abolish gagging clauses? Overhaul professional regulation? Or perhaps instigate a regime of tough external inspections, including unannounced spot-checks? Take nursing education out of universities, and return it in its entirety to the NHS via a new apprenticeship model? Or expand the role of universities by giving them some responsibility for the preparation of health care assistants? Should we draft people in from private companies to show frontline public sector staff how it should be done? How about increasing local accountability by requiring senior hospital managers to report directly to elected councillors or similar? Or might we look to science, by commissioning a research team to design and validate a robust measure of caring of a type which might be administered to all potential entrants to nursing, to newly qualified members of the profession, and to experienced staff at intervals thereafter? We could even link periodic re-registration to the securing of a minimum score.

Who is to say which of these (or any other) solutions, alone or in combination, is what the NHS needs? And how might we know if any selected course of action has ‘worked’? Truly the problems facing the health service are complex and intertwined, and proposed responses to them value-laden and open to challenge. In the event, February 7th’s Guardian led with the headline David Cameron’s prescription for NHS failings: target pay of nurses. The paper went on to say that the Prime Minister:

[…] wants nurses’ pay to be tied to how well they look after patients as part of changes to banish poor care in the NHS in response to the devastating findings of a report published on Wednesday into the Mid Staffordshire hospital scandal.

Well, that’s another ‘solution’, for sure. And how might we determine how well a nurse performs, and quantify this for the purposes of financial reward or sanction? In this version of what ought to be done we might need that researcher-designed measure of caring after all. But let’s think about this further: at what scale would performance and pay be linked? Should the salaries of all staff in a single hospital or organisation be bound together? Or might workers in a ward or team be grouped, each paid a sum reflecting some aggregated measure of performance or collective compassion? How about differentiating at the level of the individual practitioner? And what might the unintended consequences of each and all of these options be (because I can think of a few)?

So, as you will have gathered, I contest the idea of cash for compassionate care. I also thought that Chris Ham from The King’s Fund spoke sense when he wrote, in February 6th’s Independent, that Edicts from Whitehall are not enough. Dignity, quality and a culture of care cannot be driven solely by a deluge of initiatives from the top. If they could, we would by now have created the perfect health system.