Every nurse I meet is fearful of the Nursing and Midwifery Council.
From fresh-faced students to those nearing retirement, I haven’t met one nurse who doesn’t dread the prospect of being “called into the headmaster’s office to be told off”, which is how some nurses have described it to me.
It’s understandable. Here is the judge and jury that can take away your whole career and everything you’ve worked hard for. Being referred to the NMC is an upsetting experience and in many cases it is one that nurses are subjected to without real justification.
The new interim chair of the regulator, Judith Ellis, executive dean at London South Bank University, has said that one of the many things that isn’t helping the NMC to clear its backlog of cases is inappropriate referrals.
In a statement that echoed a similar point made by the Royal College of Nursing’s Janet Davies at the Florence Nightingale Foundation conference last month, Professor Ellis says that 40% of fitness to practise referrals are thrown out at the pre-screening stage. From April 2011 to February 2012, the NMC had 4,035 new matters and in many cases, they could have been dealt with by the employer. The NMC forecasts that this financial year it will spend £31.3m on case referrals, which is about 50% of its total expenditure.
That means nearly half the referrals it is asked to process should not be taking up any of its time. Isn’t that just the biggest waste of your registration fees?
Some nurses, who are wholly fit to practise, are referred to the NMC by people they simply don’t get on with. But in many cases, the employer is passing the buck to the regulator, largely because of its own lack of understanding of just what is performance management and what needs referring.
We all know that there will be practitioners whose right to work as a nurse should be withdrawn. But the NMC seems to be turning into an HR department for those organisations that are not tough enough to take responsibility for their staff’s performance.
Strong leadership should start with strong team management, and an ability to distinguish between a misdemeanour that can be best handled internally and a genuine cause for referral. This isn’t just to cut the NMC’s worklist. It’s about treading carefully around nurses’ careers and confidence. No one should be forced to endure the stress of a referral when they haven’t done anything to warrant it. Nursing is a hard enough career as it is – it’s not too much to expect those in charge of managing it not to add to the emotional burden.