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Will RCN professional forum limits reduce peer support?

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The RCN has approved plans to cut the number of its professional forums, and limit nurses to free membership of one. Clare Lomas asks how this will impact on peer support and information needs

Earlier this month the RCN council approved a proposal to almost halve the number of its professional forums.

Following a year-long consultation with RCN members, council voted overwhelmingly to cut the number of forums from just under 80 to 41 – to be overseen by appointees (NT News, 21 October, p5).

Professional forums give nurses who share the same areas of interest the opportunity to network with other members – through conferences, meetings, newsletters and emails – and influence nursing policy at both local and national level.

Under the proposed changes – due to come into effect by October 2009 – some of the forums will remain the same, such as the learning disabilities forum and the information in nursing forum.

Changes will be made to the remainder, some of which will
be merged to become larger groups under one umbrella. For example, the four nursing education forums – including primary care educators and practice education – will be amalgamated to form one large education forum.

‘If something is not working, we have to re-evaluate it,’ said RCN general secretary Peter Carter. ‘There were far too many forums, some with as few as four or five members, which were not productive. But other forums were producing high-quality work and we really wanted to keep them,’ he added.

Work on the rationalisation of forums project began in 2005 as part of the RCN’s plans to modernise and streamline its professional service to members. A governance support committee was set up to review the current forum structure and a forums governance group was appointed to lead the work on the proposed changes.

The committee found the large number of forums meant there were no clear planning, reporting or decision-making frameworks in place. This led to a lack of clarity, duplication of effort and poor communication, it said.

‘Including the sub-groups, there were over 100 groups in operation. The sheer number meant there were too many to be managed effectively and we just didn’t have enough staff to cope,’ said Stacey Hunter, chairperson of the forums governance group.

‘There was also no distinction between what a forum and a sub-group did, and it became clear from our analysis and feedback that forum members were becoming frustrated about the lack of clarity and the lack of support.

‘Cutting the numbers allows us to address these frustrations and puts college staff in a much better position to provide an appropriate and consistent level of support,’ she added.

But some nurses have expressed concerns that the shake-up could put certain specialties at a disadvantage.

If the proposed changes are implemented, the sexual health forum will be merged with travel health, occupational health, health visitors and TB nurses to form one public health forum.

‘Sexual health is a key public health issue and an emerging specialty,’ said Kathy French, freelance sexual health nurse consultant and member of the RCN sexual health forum.

‘Sexual health is big enough to be a forum in its own right and my personal concern is that it could get lost within public health. It would be very sad if sexual health didn’t continue to have a high profile within the RCN,’ she added.

Ms Hunter disagrees that larger forums will swallow up more niche subject areas, such as sexual health.

‘A lot of sexual health work is about public health, and the new structure will enable learning needs to be shared across a wider community,’ she said. ‘Any single specialty can continue to put forward bids for resources for their work and can still hold their own conferences,’ she added.

Controversially, RCN members will only be able to choose one specialist group to join free of charge, as opposed to three under the old system.

Although members will still be able to access information from other forums on the internet, they will not be able to participate in as wide a variety of face-to-face forum meetings.

During the course of the consultation, the RCN appeared to change its mind several times about this after proposing a
one-forum only rule in the consultation document.

Ms Hunter previously told NT that members could join at least one forum (NT News, 2 September, p2).

Then, at the end of September, the governance support committee recommended that council should adopt the single
forum proposal.

‘We want all RCN members to belong to a forum to ensure they have a professional home but they will be able to participate in the work of any other forum via the online communities,’ said Ms Hunter. ‘I don’t believe there is a need to formally belong to more than one forum,’ she added.

Alison Twycross, chairperson of the general children’s nursing forum, said it is unfair that nurses who belong to more than one forum will be forced to choose which one they want to be a member of when the new plans are implemented.

‘It is about belonging to a group who share the same interests and I am going to lose that,’ she said. ‘It is a pity they are imposing these restrictions as I am going to have to choose.

‘It is very difficult to comment on what access to the online communities will be like when we can’t do it yet. If the online communities aren’t in place in time, it will be crazy,’ she added.

Ms Hunter has reassured RCN members that if the online communities are not fully up and running by the time the changes are due to take place, she will go straight back to council to reassess the situation.

‘This will only work if the online communities are effective,’ she said. ‘I am confident they will deliver by February or March next year but if they are not ready I will be taking this decision back to council. I understand that any change can feel threatening but am sure that these anxieties will not be realised,’ she added.

There was clearly a case for the RCN’s professional structure to be changed. It remains to be seen whether the new structure will benefit nurses’ professional development or deny them access to information and support from their peers.

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