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'You have two things to offer a patient: humanity and technical competence'

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We talk to Peter Griffiths, professor of health services research at the University of Southampton, and executive editor of the International Journal of Nursing Studies. He has been a nurse for 20 years

Why did you decide to become a nurse?

I was working in mental health research, but felt that I didn’t know enough about the world. I was drawn to nursing after working as a hospital porter and through having friends who were nurses. I wanted to do something that involved working with people that would challenge me emotionally and intellectually, and which would be of value to society. I was struck by the terrible things that happened to people in hospitals and wanted to do something that may help.

Where did you train?

The Brighton School of Nursing.

What was your first job in nursing?

I was a staff nurse on a medical oncology ward.

What is the trait you least like in yourself and why?

I’m not always the world’s best listener, which is not good for a nurse or an academic, and I often only work out what people are trying to say when it’s a bit too late to properly acknowledge them. I like to think that I was better when practising clinically, as giving people the space to be heard is so important.

Whom have you learnt most from in your career and why?

The sister of the first surgical ward I worked on as a student. She was an extraordinary role model who encapsulated all the positive values of both the old and the new nursing. I nursed her some years later, when she was dying of cancer, and that experience taught me a lot.

What advice would you give someone starting out?

You have two things to offer a patient: humanity and technical competence. You are rarely much use to people without both and, if you lack one element, you probably won’t be able to do the other well.

What’s the most satisfying part of your job?

I don’t have anything that compares with the satisfaction of hands-on nursing and I suspect I never will, unless I go back into practice. Working with students can come close and I derive a real sense of fulfillment when I finish a paper for publication.

What do you think will change nursing in the next decade?

We haven’t grasped the demographic time bomb yet. It will affect patients’ needs and the workforce available to care.

What would you have done if you hadn’t become a nurse?

I have no idea. Archeology and astrophysics appealed but, on occasion, so does working on the checkout at Tesco.

If you could change one thing in healthcare, what would it be?

The obvious thing would be to abolish ill-health. Short of that, I would get rid of reactive policy making based on prejudice, ignorance and the latest media frenzy. Perhaps abolishing ill-health is easier?

What would your ideal weekend involve?

Newspaper, coffee, country walks with the family and a bit more time.

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