This week sees three contrasting reports on the role of specialist nurses in the NHS.
On Monday Diabetes UK published research showing 218 diabetes specialist nurse posts were left vacant by trusts in 2010 due to cost cutting reasons. The charity used the study to highlight the valuable role DSNs play in preventing sight loss and limb amputation.
The annual National Lung Cancer Audit, also published on Monday, said patients who saw a specialist cancer nurse were more than twice as likely as other patients to receive treatment for lung cancer.
Meanwhile, the third ever IBD Audit, published on Tuesday, celebrated a 10% increase in the number of hospitals with access to inflammatory bowel disease over the past three years – marking a new high of 72%.
These three reports follow figures published by Nursing Times in March showing the number of outpatients treated by specialist nurses is rising by more than 100,000 a year. Commentators described it as “powerful evidence” of the growing role of specialist nurses in the NHS.
However, this can be a tricky topic. While the role of specialists is often talked up in reports such as those published this week, it cannot be ignored that there are tensions surrounding their role.
Regular stories over the last five years about specialists being redeployed by trusts to fill staffing gaps on wards are perhaps unlikely to curry much favour with the rest of the nursing workforce. While it is undoubtedly a waste of resource for specialists to be filling non specialist roles, there is a risk of them being seen as “too special” to get their hands dirty.
On the other side of the fence, they are still seen by some doctors as inferior invaders in their domain, rather than a valued member of the multi-disciplinary team.
Then of course there is the hard-to-shake tag that “anyone can call themselves a specialist nurse”, due to the continued lack of regulation for advanced practice and legally protected titles.
But the very fact it is the specialists that have been mentioned in three reports this week demonstrates the important role they have as flag bearers for modern nursing.
Against a background of cuts, cuts and more cuts, the attention specialists receive may not be universally welcomed.
But, as they are often one of the first affected, as highlighted by charity PR muscle, their loss or misuse should act as a litmus paper for more widespread workforce challenges facing the nursing workforce.
Specialist nurses are at the forefront of helping to inform the public about how the profession has moved on from the Carry On caricature. They and their work must be supported and championed.