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Knickers and tea – a vision from the past with lessons for the future

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I recently found myself wondering how I would feel if I were not able to wear my own underwear when I wanted. 

During a lecture by an eminent nursing professor, I also wondered whether I would accept a cup of tea made from a communal pot with milk and sugar already mixed in.

I then went on to consider my reaction if both of these things happened at the same time, and while I was in hospital, feeling at my most vulnerable.

These were the realities experienced by patients at a hospital in South London many years ago, as described by Baroness Mary Watkins, who was delivering the lecture at King’s College London earlier this week.

Baroness Watkins, a cross-bench peer and professor of nursing, knew about this because she worked at the hospital at the time and witnessed the laundry and tea-making practices – and got things changed for the better. By the time she was finished, patients there were guaranteed “their knickers were their own!”, she told the audience.

“Staff made it clear how unpopular she was for upsetting the status quo”

Though she noted that this was not achieved without some resistance from fellow staff, who made it clear how unpopular she was for upsetting the status quo.

Her lecture was a wide-ranging one about developments in nurse practice and education, and did not centre on this one experience.

But the anecdote stayed in my mind, because it served as a reminder of the key role nurses have to play in challenging and improving care – no matter how small it may seem.

Of course, it’s not just about bedside interactions and the global challenges facing healthcare and nursing are stark.

Baroness Watkins, who joined the peerage in 2015, laid bare the facts to the influential audience, which included the chief nursing officer for England, directors of nursing, fellow professors, nurses and students.

“By 2050, 22% of people will be over the age of 60”

An ageing world population means that, by 2050, 22% of people will be over the age of 60, compared with 12% at the moment. With that will come increasing numbers, and more complex cases, of cardiovascular diseases, cancers, respiratory diseases, diabetes, mental health issues and dementia.

Not to mention the requirement for better education around self-care for patients, the importance of health promotion, and the need for disease prevention and treatment to focus far more on both physical and mental health.

Owing to all these facts, people will inevitably require more nursing care, but there will also be a global shortage of nine million nurses by 2040, according to predictions, she said.

Baroness Watkins was not shying away from the major issues. And she made it clear that nurses would be a key part of the solutions to these huge challenges and would need to take the lead.

She referred to her previous involvement with a night nursing service for older people in the 1980s “when no one wanted to hear about dementia”. But 25 years later, in her interview to join the House of Lords, a key focus of the questions was about how her experience could help to shape social policy around dementia.

“If we know dementia is top of the agenda now, can we look at what will be top of the agenda in 20 or 30 years’ time, and be in advance of it?,” she asked the audience.

But I couldn’t help but think her “knickers and tea” anecdote was also significant. It offered a reminder that, while overcoming the macro – sometimes global – challenges, advances on a micro level were also hard-won and could point to the future.

“Change is not easy,” she said to us. But, based on the advances she had made all those years ago around underwear and drink choice, she suggested to the audience: “Just think about the other things you might be able to instigate”.

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