Something happened a few weeks ago that was rather exciting. I’ve often replied to Jeremy Hunt’s musings on Twitter but never expected a reply back. Recently I got one.
He was tweeting in response to criticisms about doctor numbers and I asked whether he had any comments about a graph that I’d produced that showed the significant decline in mental health nurses between 2010 and 2017.
His response stated that mental health nursing was “now [the] fastest growing nurse specialty”. I couldn’t believe what he was saying but, giving him the benefit of the doubt, I did a bit more research.
dave munday cropped
Official statistics from NHS Digital show that between May 2010 and March 2017, the number of mental health nurses in England declined by 4,942. This means a 12% cut. However it’s important to note that over a similar time (mid-year 2010 to mid-year 2016) the population has increased by over 2.6 million.
If you work out the number of people in England to mental health nurses, this means a change of 1,296 people per mental health nurse in 2010 to 1,549 people per mental health nurse in 2017, or a 19% increase.
Now to Hunt’s claims that mental health nurses are currently the fastest growing specialty. I compared six nursing groups that NHS Digital report statistics on. Between 2010 and 2017, mental health nurses fared third worst in terms of the numbers cut – after community health nurses (reduced by 14%) and learning disability nurses (down by 35%).
As I didn’t know what the health secretary meant by ‘now’ in his tweet, I had a look at the situation just over the most recent year (March 2016 – March 2017) to see if things had improved compared with the period before.
I found that in the past year mental health nurses had still declined in number – but were instead the fourth worst cut compared with the other groups of nurses. However the main reason for this apparent slight improvement was actually due to health visitor numbers having declined by a staggering 10%.
”Official statistics show that between May 2010 and March 2017, the number of mental health nurses in England declined by 4,942”
There is one other possible reason that could be argued to be behind the health secretary’s claim - though I’d suggest it is so weak that he would never use it.
When you look at Health Education England’s nurse training commissions in 2016-17, it did plan a 3% increase in student mental health nurse numbers (equal to an extra 100) compared with the year before.
This is the biggest percentage increase among the four fields. But this does not make mental health nursing the fastest growing speciality - it would just make it the field with the biggest percentage increase in training places.
In any case, when you look at long-term commissioning trends, there were still 11% fewer mental health nurse training places in 2016-17 than in 2009-10, confirmed by an answer to a parliamentary question recently put forward by MP Rachael Maskell.
So on the one hand Jeremy Hunt was claiming one thing, and on the other, the facts just didn’t seem to back it up.
”At this point I think it’s reasonable to believe there is absolutely no evidential basis for the claim the health secretary made”
How could I resolve this conundrum? Fortunately, another MP came to my aid. Luciana Berger, past shadow secretary for mental health - and continuing mental health campaigner - asked Hunt for the evidential basis for his reply to me.
The response from the junior minister responsible ignored the question. So at this point I think it’s reasonable to believe there is absolutely no evidential basis for the claim the health secretary made.
As nurses, our code expects us to “uphold the reputation of [our] profession at all times” including by “act[ing] with honesty and integrity”. If only we could expect the same from our ministers in what they say (and tweet).
Dave Munday, lead professional officer (mental health), Unite (including the Mental Health Nurses Association)