Boosting support for trust chief nurses is among the key priorities for the new regional director of the Royal College of Nursing in the South West, who says they are “often the lone voice for quality and nursing on the board”.
Susan Masters, who was previously associate director of nursing and quality for North Somerset Clinical Commissioning Group and has held other senior roles, said her own experiences had hardened her determination to improve the professional and practical support for this group.
“If you don’t nurture and support those senior nurse leaders, they can’t help drive forward a culture of compassion”
“We don’t talk about our senior leaders a lot, but being an exec nurse on a board is a really challenging and tough place to be and I have just come from that world,” she told Nursing Times, who began her new job at the start of March.
“They are often the lone voice for nursing and quality on the board,” she said. “If you don’t nurture and support those senior nurse leaders, they can’t help drive forward a culture of compassion that will impact on their nurses and healthcare support workers and, therefore, the quality of patient care.”
Ms Masters is currently studying for a Masters degree with the NHS Leadership Academy, with a focus on senior leaders in healthcare and their role in ensuring a compassionate and resilient workforce.
“If we decimate our health visiting, public health and school nurses then we are not promoting the health of the nation”
She said she would be supporting the establishment of an executive nurse network in the South West, which was especially important given the size of the region.
“It is such a huge geographical patch and the distances between the trusts and CCGs are so big that it would be good to bring them together in some way to provide peer support and support with their own continuing professional development, so they are able to think about their own revalidation and better support their own nursing network,” she said.
A health visitor by background, Ms Masters said she was also very keen to support public health nurses, who have seen their numbers slashed as a result of cuts to public health budgets now held by local councils.
As someone who was heavily involved in the previous drive to boost health visitor numbers, she said she was disappointed to see that work fall by the wayside.
There was an increase nationally after the Conservative Party pledged to boost the size of the workforce, by 4,200 – around 50% – between 2011 and 2015, following staffing concerns.
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But Ms Masters said: “Due to attrition and lack of investment the numbers of public health nurses have been completely slashed.
“I know health visitors aren’t always members of the RCN, but I do want to look at how we can support those members,” she said.
She said health visiting, school nursing and other public health nursing roles were the “key to the health of the nation”, as championed by chief nursing officer for England Jane Cummings, who recently set out new commitments to public health.
“We need to start at 0-19, so if we decimate our health visiting, public health and school nurses then we are not promoting the health of the nation,” she added.
Other key concerns in the South West region included the transfer of some NHS services to subsidiary companies, with potentially less favourable terms and conditions for staff.
“Mainly this involves what we would refer to as back office staff, but we are seeing some instances where there are clinical staff involved including one day surgery services in the South West,” said Ms Masters.
“It is something that is growing,” she said. “The RCN’s position is we don’t support fragmentation of the NHS, so it is something we want to watch very carefully. We don’t want to see a two-tier employment structure.”
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Ms Masters, who trained as a general nurse at the Bristol Royal Infirmary, has worked in the South West throughout her career to date – apart from a stint in London when she trained and worked as a registered sick children’s nurse at Great Ormond Street Hospital.
She went on to study health visiting at the University of the West of England, working for many years in Taunton in Somerset.
Her other previous posts include being the regional children’s services lead for the South West at NHS Direct, as well as safeguarding roles at Taunton and Somerset Foundation Trust and North Somerset CCG.
“The geographical spread can make it less easy to recruit into positions”
She told Nursing Times her experience of regional work would stand her in good stead in her new role and the first step would be getting to know all the different trusts and health and social care providers.
When it came to nursing issues affecting the region, she said many were reflective of the country as a whole including ongoing staffing shortages,
Latest official figures from NHS Digital show nearly 4,000 vacant posts in the South West and Wessex areas. The statistics revealed that, from April 2017 to 30 June 2017 there were 3,691 vacancies advertised.
There were specific recruitment challenges in the South West – again due to the size and geography of the region, noted Ms Masters.
“The geographical spread can make it less easy to recruit into positions. If you’re a nurse living in South Cornwall it is less easy for you to pick up a position in Exeter. In a more urban environment it is easier for staff to move around,” she said.
Meanwhile, as in other parts of the country, she said the commissioning and funding of nurse education was “quite a big challenge”.
“Universities are finding the removal of the bursary, both for first time students and post grads, has seen a significant drop in applications,” said Ms Masters.
“In the South West universities went to clearing for the first time and yet still didn’t fill their places – even though they had decreased their intake,” she said.
While the RCN fully supported people embarking on new routes into nursing, such as nursing associate apprenticeships, she said it was vital to encourage more people to do nursing degrees.
“Certainly at the RCN we support those members following a nursing associate role, and we welcome them into the RCN and support them fully,” she said.
“But we feel the graduate route into nursing is the one that is going to create the largest number to increase that nursing pipeline,” she said. “That’s what we need to lobby for.”
Boosting retention is also key and she said another key priority in her region was ensuring good continuing professional development opportunities for all nurses and promoting healthy workplaces.
“I have been a nurse for 30 years – if you cut me in the middle it would say ‘nurse’”
The RCN would continue to offer free bespoke training like a two-day CPD event on end of life care at the Royal Cornwall Trust last year, with another on building a resilient workplace planned for this year.
Ms Masters said the region was also working hard to promote the RCN’s new healthy workplace toolkit among employers, including through a newly re-invigorated regional Social Partnership Forum.
“We have reignited it and the HR directors are engaged with that and asking us to help address findings from the NHS staff survey, looking at healthy workplaces,” she said.
Above all, she said she was looking forward to championing the needs of nurses and nursing support staff across the South West.
“I have been a nurse for 30 years – if you cut me in the middle it would say ‘nurse’,” she said. “I have stayed very close to the frontline, although I have been in senior positions now for some years.
She added: “For me, this role is the perfect platform to continue promoting the core values of supporting a resilient, healthy nursing workforce in order to improve patient care and the patient experience.”