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'Our call this International Nurses' Day: we need actions not words'

Karen Roberts
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For people living with cancer, it is nurses who so often play a critical role in providing the care, comfort and reassurance that they need, during what can often be the most difficult time in their lives.

Yet nurses face increasing challenges. With a lack of financial support for professional development, increasing patient demand, and no clearly funded plan to ensure staffing levels are met, for many, the future is uncertain.

This International Nurses’ Day, Macmillan wants to see the government make progress on the promises it outlined in the NHS Long Term Plan. That means publishing a funded strategy to grow and develop our NHS nursing workforce so that they can provide patients with the very best care that they deserve.

Reports this week of nursing shortages paint a bleak picture of the very real pressures that nurses struggle with every day. Staffing shortages and a lack of specialists, compounded by a growing and more complex patient population and a lack of career development opportunities, are reasons enough for many nurses to leave the profession.

“Retaining existing staff and improving their working conditions is crucial”

While there’s no simple fix to this exodus, greater support, putting in place measures to ensure greater flexibility, and a strategy to ensure people can develop professionally so their career continues to be rewarding could alleviate some of the strain.

Retaining existing staff and improving their working conditions is crucial, as is guaranteeing that there is a talent pipeline to deliver safe and effective cancer care in the future. This means concrete plans for the rollout of financial support for undergraduate nursing – to replace the loss of the student bursary – and encourage the next generation to pursue a career in nursing.

It’s also important that nurses who have been in the profession some time have their skills updated to reflect the fast-paced changes in cancer treatments, which is why support for professional development is critical.

Meanwhile, it’s clear that international recruitment will remain key in sustaining the workforce in the short and medium term.

At Macmillan, we know that people living with cancer are already paying the price for the pressures faced by an overstretched workforce; anxiously waiting longer for diagnoses, with diminished access to the specialist nurses they need, and having their lives turned upside down without the support of personalised care, which could make such a difference.

The numbers speak for themselves; in parts of the UK for every 100 chemotherapy nurses, there are 15 vacancies which are unfilled.

What’s more, there are significant regional variations in quality of cancer care and treatment, which mean patients could be faced with a postcode lottery when it comes to the quality of the care they experience.

Patients deserve a health system which is agile and works seamlessly together to deliver care and support in an integrated way. Nurses deserve the training, resources and support to make sure that they can deliver high-quality care.

Let’s use International Nurses’ Day to remind the government the only way for this to happen is for their words to turn into actions. A first step would be to use the upcoming spending review to deliver the necessary funding to start tackling these workforce challenges.

Dr Karen Roberts is chief nursing officer at Macmillan Cancer Support

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