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Seeing people not patients

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Dame Jessica Corner thought nursing wasn’t for her until one job showed her that patient-centred care did exist

Dame Jessica Corner, dean of Health Sciences at the University of Southampton, began her career as one of the first to graduate from Chelsea College, now King’s College London, with a nursing degree. After initially working in cardiothoracic nursing, she felt frustrated by the care model used in the 1980s, and left the profession to work in a wine bar for a few months.

“I felt that person-centred care wasn’t really a part of how things were organised then, and that became increasingly frustrating for me,” she explains. “One of the consultants wouldn’t allow bereavement leaflets to be left out, even though a lot of the patients were dying of heart problems.”

Before leaving her staff nursing post, worried that nursing might not be a good fit for her and considering leaving the profession, Dame Jessica applied to train as a cancer nurse at the Royal Marsden Hospital. While she was working in the wine bar, the offer of a place arrived in the post and she decided to accept it.

“At the Royal Marsden Hospital, I found a type of care absolutely centred around patients as people, and I realised that was a specialty that I could work in as it was true to my values,” she says.

Now, Dame Jessica has found inspiration in nursing: after receiving her doctoral degree from King’s College London in 1990, she carried out research to bring patient-centred care to the forefront of cancer nursing. She has recently been appointed chair of the Council of Deans of Health and and has also been made a dame. About this she says, “I was completely stunned. I really hadn’t been expecting it, then I found myself thinking ‘it can’t be me, they must have made a mistake’. Now it has been formally announced I just feel it is wonderful to be recognised in this way.”

Her background in nursing had an “enormous influence” on her research focused on patients’ experiences. Her research for a non-pharmacological treatment for breathlessness has now become a part of National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidance for the treatment of lung cancer.

I found a type of care that was absolutely centred around patients as people - it was true to my values

Her current research with the National Cancer Survivorship Initiative looks at how to improve aftercare for patients. After reviewing data from the Cancer Patient Experience Survey and studies using patient-reported outcome measures, she found that 1-10 years post-treatment, people who had cancer have the health profile of someone with a chronic illness, and often experience health problems such as fatigue or emotional effects such as fear of recurrence. She says improving patient education in aftercare is vital because patients aren’t always prepared for those long-term problems.

Dame Jessica believes education is essential in this critical time for healthcare, strained by an ageing population and financial challenges. She believes nursing education can help combat those challenges and aims to use her new role as chair of the Council of Deans of Health as a platform through which she will advocate for allied health professionals and university-based education for nurses.

“I believe the work of universities such as my own is a powerful and stabilising force,’ she says. “We are less buffeted about by the difficulties so we can take a longer-term view and work to develop nurses who can be prepared for the future. They will be confident, skilled and mindful of the research evidence on which care should be built.

“I am absolutely a supporter of university-based, degree-level preparation for nurses and, beyond that,

for nurses to do doctoral preparation. We’re very short of people who can be clinical academics in the UK, so I’m very supportive of the agenda to get nurses and allied health professionals funding so people can train and be in a position to pursue the kind of career I have been very fortunate to have.”

Sara Lawton

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