Nursing should stop looking backwards and embrace the future as a degree-only entry profession, according to the new chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing.
In her first interview with Nursing Times since taking over from Peter Carter at the start of August, Janet Davies identified some people’s tendency to consider previous generations of nursing as superior was one the main challenges facing the profession.
“One of the things that frustrates me most is we always tend to look backwards,” she said.
“It is such a negative thing to be doing because we are now in the 21st century and we should be looking forward. The solutions to the future will be very different than the solutions to the past.”
“One of the things that frustrates me most is we always tend to look backwards”
She noted that it was a trait that seemed to be largely unique to nursing. “We don’t see other professions doing the same thing,” she said.
“You wouldn’t see an architect going back to wattle and daub to make a skyscraper and yet we seem to think things that were happening in the past were always the best – they were right for the time maybe but we need to look to the future.”
Asked why she thought this was, Ms Davies said she thought some nurses were possibly a “little bit defensive” about their own training and the period they joined the profession.
But said: “We are now an all-graduate profession. We’ve worked for this for many years and we should be really proud of it, and I get very frustrated when I hear people saying consistently why do you need a degree to be a nurse – it’s pretty obvious to me.”
She highlighted that healthcare was more complex than it had ever been and that graduate training gave nurses the ability and confidence to “challenge” care decisions.
“The biggest thing for me is challenge,” she said. “In the ‘olden days’, when I trained, we did things because it was the thing to do, we didn’t use evidence as much as we do now.”
Ms Davies suggested the public did not always appreciate “what a nursing degree is actually”.
“One of my key personal aims is that we get the nursing profession working together”
“It’s really interesting that we get letters here quite often from patients or retired nurses who are concerned that nurses have to have a degree,” she said.
“What seems to be the misnomer on this is that they believe people have to have a degree before they start nursing, they don’t appreciate that actually it’s at the need of your training you are awarded a degree,” she said.
She added: “The big thing really is how we enable people – with the skills, talent and the attribute to make fantastic nurses – to access that degree programme.”
Asked by Nursing Times what the most immediate issues on her agenda were, Ms Davies highlighted building the college’s relationships.
“One of my key personal aims is that we get the nursing profession working together,” she said. “We can be fractured at times and I think we’re all in this together and we need to support each other very strongly.”
She noted that this was necessary to strengthen leadership within the profession.
“There is a need for very strong leadership in nursing and I think the college has a role to play in ensuring that is the case… that is one of my first key aims,” she said.
Ms Davies added that the issue of safe staffing “remains key”. “We know that demand for healthcare is continuing to increase and yet we know that staffing levels still aren’t right and we’re struggling with that. But it really is about getting a sensible long-term view,” she said.
She also cited the need to improve how nursing was valued, both in terms of pay and also how it was generally perceived. “It’s not only in pay – but that is obviously significant – but it’s also about how do we value what nurses do,” she said.
“We know that demand for healthcare is continuing to increase and yet we know that staffing levels still aren’t right”
Achieving these aims was part of the college’s role both as a professional body and also a trade union, she said, acknowledging that it was a balancing act between the two functions of the organisation.
Asked if that balance was right at the moment, Ms Davies said: “It depends on how you look at it.
“One of the fascinating things I heard when I got the job was people who are very interested in our professional work sometimes believe that our trade union voice is louder and then I also hear from people who think… that maybe our professional voice is louder,” she said.
“It’s very subjective,” she said. “One of the roles I have is to make sure we do balance that really carefully.”
However, she admitted that questions over the structure of the RCN were likely to remain, following the suggestions made in the Francis report that the college should split into a separate union and professional body.
“We will always have that discussion,” she said. We’ve got to make sure we meet everybody’s needs.
“We do have to have a very strong professional voice, we have to be seen as an active royal college…but in the same level we do have to support our nurses [through our union work] to enable that to happen,” she added.
Janet Davies: quick facts
- Became RCN chief executive and general secretary in August 2015
- Was previously RCN executive director or nursing and service delivery for nine years
- Before joining the RCN she was chief executive of Mersey Regional Ambulance Service NHS Trust
- She began her nursing career in Manchester
Are nurses “a little bit defensive” about their own training?
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