The community and district nursing workforce fell sharply last year, latest figures reveal, sparking fears of a “creeping tragedy” for patient care.
The number of whole time equivalent district nurses in the NHS in England on 30 September 2011 was 6,937 compared with 7,693 the previous year, a drop of 756, according to the annual workforce census.
The figures, published last week by the NHS Information Centre, show the number of community matrons also fell by 83, from 1,552 to 1,469.
The Information Centre noted the data did not include all nurses transferred to independent providers via the transforming community services programme.
Despite this, the community nursing workforce appears to have born the brunt of cuts to the nursing workforce at a time when the government has said hospital services should be scaled back in favour of more care in the community.
Overall, the figures show the number of registered nurses working in the NHS fell by 3,411 last year to stand at 348,693. The Royal College of Nursing described the drop as “incredibly worrying”.
District nurse numbers have been steadily declining for a decade but last year represents the largest drop in a single year. It follows repeated warnings about shortages of district nurses in recent weeks.
Health minister Simon Burns pledged to write to the Commons health committee with information on the state of the district nursing after concerns were raised in Nursing Times about the government’s failure to promote the specialty alongside its focus on health visiting (news, page 2, 13 March).
In fact the workforce figures also reveal that, despite the national recruitment programme for the profession, the number of health visitors also fell between September 2010 and 2011, by 76 whole time equivalents.
Rosemary Cook, director of the Queen’s Nursing Institute, said the figures “confirm all of our fears about the district nursing workforce”.
“The number of district nurses has been falling steadily for a decade and too little has been done to arrest this decline,” she said. “There are now 36% fewer qualified district nurses than in 2001.
“This could be a creeping tragedy for patient care, in an age where more people live at home with complex, long term conditions.”