NHS conspiracy theorists would have considered last week’s story on safe staffing guidance for A&E as vindication of their suspicious natures.
It revealed that, contrary to statements last year from senior leaders in healthcare, staff ratios really do matter.
Work on safe staffing guidance started by NICE in the wake of The Francis Report into care failings at Mid-Staffordshire was halted in June last year, and taken over by NHS England. However, the news was followed by a flurry of, well, inactivity and silence.
”No one seemed to have a plan for how to manage safe staffing”
No one seemed to have a plan for how to manage safe staffing, and any comments on the issue were limited to suggestions that multidisciplinary teams are the way forward and that nurse to patient ratios are not essential – without any evidence to back that up.
Evidence seems to be a nice-to-have rather than a must-have for those in charge of whether to make staffing ratios mandatory. They seem to regard safe staffing as a kind of alchemy – take the word multidisciplinary, sprinkle on some mentions of “skill mix” and suddenly you have a gleaming service that has no need to think about having adequate numbers of nurses to provide safe care.
Monitor, NHS England and the Trust Development Authority all wrote to provider organisation nursing directors last autumn, giving pretty much the same message – that NICE’s earlier guidance on general adult wards of 1:8 was only a guide, and they shouldn’t feel compelled to hit that ratio.
”It seems plausible that NICE’s work was halted because it was going to prove too costly to implement”
Not according to NICE – which actually did some work in this area to produce evidence, rather than just relying on alchemy.
The leaked A&E NICE guidance, which HSJ reporter Shaun Lintern got hold of last week, reveals that the organisation did believe ratios are essential. It specified the number of registered nurses to patients, depending on their priority level and the reason they had been brought to A&E.
It seems plausible, then, that NICE’s work was halted because it was going to prove too costly to implement.
Perhaps NHS Improvement, which is to take over this work from NHS England, will have more of a plan as to how to set national guidance on the number of nurses needed to safely look after patients.
But will its guidance be driven by cost rather than need and safety demands? If so, nurses are going to need a bit of real magic to keep their patients safe.