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Valuing the NHS

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Nursing has come a long way since the health service was founded in 1948 but, as RCN general secretary Peter Carter discusses, its dedication to caring remains constant

Since the day it opened its doors, on 5 July 1948, the health service has improved the health of our nation, transformed the lives of millions and has been as much a means of spreading social justice as it has a vehicle for delivering quality healthcare. Noble in conception, effective in practice, this unique institution is the jewel in the crown of our country’s public services.

The 60 years of the health service have been characterised by a process of continual modernisation and evolution.

And nowhere is that more true than when it comes to the nursing workforce. Look back to what nursing was in 1948, then compare it with nursing in the 21st century and one thing stands out – nursing is anything but a status quo profession.

In the early years of this century, the nursing workforce is the single biggest group of clinical staff in the health service; it looks after more than a million patients a day; and it provides around 80% of hands-on patient care. That’s quite an impressive set of facts and figures. Arguably, however, what’s even more impressive is the range of roles and responsibilities that modern nursing now encompasses within the health service.

The 21st-century nursing workforce ranges from healthcare assistants to specialist nurses, from nurse consultants to nurse directors. They work in care homes and in the community, in GP surgeries and in hospitals. And they don’t simply treat illness – they educate and counsel, they immunise and screen and they promote good health and prevent illness.
Today’s nursing workforce has been at the forefront of delivering key government reforms by driving down waiting times and driving up standards. They have also taken advantage of the reform process in order to run nurse-led clinics and become partners in general practices. In addition, 50,000 nurses can now prescribe for their patients, with over 7,000 able to prescribe from the whole British National Formulary.

In recent years, NHS nurses have been leading the way on breaking down clinical boundaries; they have been at the forefront of developing tailored packages of person-centred care; and they have demonstrated their ability to work as team leaders and team members. Yet, in doing all of this, nurses have still ensured that they remain the central figures in the patient journey.

Nursing has come a very long way since the founding of the health service in 1948, and that journey of evolution has continued apace during the opening decade of this century. But, whatever else may have changed in that time, one thing remains constant. And that one thing is ‘caring’.

Nursing always has been, and always will be, a caring profession. Every nurse knows that nursing is about far more than clinical skills and technical abilities. It’s about respecting and having compassion for patients and, above all, it’s about dignity.

This dedication to dignified care demonstrates another key hallmark of the modern nursing workforce – namely campaigning for progress. Campaigning on issues such as: nutrition and standards; extra resources and additional staff; education and training; and campaigning from the ward to the board, and from the devolved governments to the government in Westminster, for a better deal for the people in their care.

Come the 5 July NHS nurses up and down the country will rightly celebrate 60 glorious years of the health service.

Sixty years of quality care and 60 years of making a real difference. Nurses know that the health service has an impressive history. But they also want it to enjoy
a successful future. So yes, the RCN, and the 400,000 nurses we represent, recognise that the health service is living through a time of challenge and change. However, our daily experience of the health service convinces us that it still remains the most respected of our national institutions.

We therefore believe that the health service should be valued and treasured. Above all though, we believe that the health service must be nurtured and sustained. So, in this its 60th anniversary year, we should take pride in its past and celebrate its achievements. But, in the policies we develop and the reforms we introduce, our priority must always be to secure its future.

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