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Mark Radcliffe: ‘Nurses have the capacity to change the system’

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Have you heard of the CERN experiment? It’s something to do with physics so don’t expect much detail as the only thing I remember from school is that if you swing a Bunsen burner round your head really fast you are quite likely to hit someone with it.

However, buried deep underground in Geneva is £6bn worth of science equipment, where sometime this year they are going to try to recreate the exact circumstances that followed the Big Bang. In short, they want to see what happens if they try to make another universe.

Do we want another universe under Switzerland? When asked if anything could go wrong, one scientist allegedly said: ‘There’s a one in 50 million chance the current universe might be destroyed.’ People win the lottery with those odds every week. Still, not to worry. There isn’t anything we can do about it. Like so much in life.

One of the opening debates at RCN Congress last week concerned a survey that revealed eight out of 10 nurses were distressed that patients were not being afforded the dignity they deserve. It was, of course, a good way of turning attention on to the fundamentals of care and framing nurses – quite rightly – as the guardians of those key issues.

But given we are a reflective lot, and one of the things that makes a good nurse is the capacity to think about how to improve, shouldn’t we be asking: ‘If patients are not being afforded the dignity they should, why aren’t we doing something about it?’

Because if we are faced with a widespread sense of poor patient care, of an inability to ensure that the dignity of the patient is being protected, isn’t that solely the responsibility of nurses? Of course, the nebulous mass of invisible nonsense known as ‘the system’ is an easy thing to blame and it can be an unhelpful and bureaucratic burden. But shouldn’t we just change the system? Is that really beyond us? Are the managers, or the doctors, or whoever it is preventing this large majority of the profession from doing what they know to be right, so powerful?

It is interesting such an issue emerges at the beginning of RCN Congress. The nearest, indeed perhaps only, collective expression of will still available to the largest professional group in the country is the RCN. But the question is: what will they do with it? Use it as a way of demonstrating the frailties of modernisation? Or use it to galvanise the workforce to take control of the nursing environment?

Because in a world where so much seems beyond our control, where wars are started and experiments conducted and new laws made up, we know we retain the capacity to draw a line in the sand and say: ‘I won’t be party to this because it is wrong.’ And no amount of ‘yeah, buts’ will make it right.

And that doesn’t make you difficult. It simply makes you a nurse.

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