When I talk to members of the public about nursing, I know what mental images they have got in their heads - nurses in uniforms, working on wards and helping (usually older) people in and out of bed.
I often wish I could make the public be a fly on the wall at the Royal College of Nursing Congress – and appreciate the full multi-coloured dreamcoat that nursing is.
It’s learning disability nurses, it’s public health nurses, mental health nurses, district nurses, sexual health nurses, prison nurses, armed forces nurses – I could go on but I would end up trying to create an exhaustive list and miss a nurse genre out and end up in trouble with those nurses.
But I also worry that that this huge fabric with its many patterns and colours and textures of nursing is slowly being worn away as certain nurse specialties are not being supported enough.
This week’s RCN Congress at Belfast articulated those concerns beautifully.
“It is a tragedy that some of the most vulnerable people in our society are at risk of not getting the care they desperately need”
An emergency resolution asked the RCN Council to call for urgent action to be taken to preserve the field of learning disability (LD) nursing – it was passed unanimously.
It is a topic Nursing Times has written on often recently – with concerns that half of the LD nursing courses could be shutting their doors and experts calling for action to address the LD nursing shortage. I’ve also written about it personally in the last few weeks.
It is a tragedy that some of the most vulnerable people in our society are at risk of not getting the care they desperately need – and if we don’t have nurses to stand up for them, then many of them will have no one.
But other branches of nursing are at risk too. Prison nursing was discussed at congress, with fears that the low morale we see elsewhere in nursing is particularly prevalent in the penal sector. Alistair Grant, from the RCN Scotland board, introduced the resolution saying nurses in this sector were “firefighting” in “uniquely challenging environments”.
And in sexual health nursing, an RCN report unveiled at congress revealed that nurses in this sector were turning people away for testing, because they do not have the time and resources to test patients.
The report included the findings of more than 600 nurses working in sexual health, who reported that 61% had seen a reduction in the overall sexual health workforce and 57.1% had been a drop in the number of registered nurses.
Over the five years since the government moved public health services to local authorities, the RCN warned a “dangerous recruitment freeze” had prevented staff from delivering vital services including testing for chlamydia and HIV.
The RCN’s report pointed out that during the same period there had been a drop in the number of 18 to 24-year-olds being tested for chlamydia while diagnoses have gone up. Syphillis diagnoses have also risen by 12%.
But let’s not forget that nursing does include nurses working on wards, and yes, helping older people in and out of bed to go the toilet – if they can.
A hard-hitting report published by the RCN this week said that basic nursing care is not getting done, because of staffing shortages.
“I wonder just how much impact that campaign can have in the here and now”
The Nursing on the Brink report expressed some serious concerns from nurses about care being left undone or the quality of care, as there were too few registered nurses in proportion to support staff.
Little wonder that in her keynote speech to congress on Sunday, RCN chief executive and general secretary Janet Davies unveiled plans for an RCN campaign to demand that safe staffing levels and accountability be set in law for every part of the UK. It will launch in the autumn.
Legislation for staffing levels started in Wales, and it’s desperately needed. Though with no nurses to fill vacancies and no plan in place to really reverse this shortage, I wonder just how much impact that campaign can have in the here and now – where it’s definitely needed.
But that campaign – and the ensuing law – is the right thing to keep patients and service users safe.
Congress is a fabulous event because we hear from the different sectors of nursing – the school nurses, the care home nurses, the forensic nurses – they debate, they learn from each other and they enrich the care they provide.
I worry that without legislation it’s going to be an empty hall at future congresses, lacking the loud and diverse gathering of nurse power we’ve seen in Belfast this week.