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Nurse shortages 'putting patients at risk'

Survey reveals most hospitals fail to meet their own staffing targets

Mark Gould

Monday, 23 January 2017

There are too few nurses caring for patients, which puts people at serious risk, and drastic action is needed to rebuild the nursing workforce, the Royal College of Nursing's chief executive Janet Davies says.

“Safe staffing levels aren’t an optional extra – having the right number of nurses is essential to ensure that patients can recover properly.

“While health care assistants play a crucial role in the team, research shows that support roles cannot replace registered nurses if patients are to receive safe care,” Ms Davies said.

Her comments came in response to the publication of data analysed by the Health Service Journal (HSJ) which found that 96% of hospitals have failed to meet their own planned level for registered nurses.

At a time when the Government should be attracting as many people as possible into the nursing profession, the RCN says pay is failing to keep up with the cost of living. The RCN has called on the Government to improve nursing pay and tackle the apparent drop in student applications following the removal of bursaries in England.

The HSJ survey revealed that 214 acute hospitals – 96% of those reporting – failed to meet their own planned level for registered nurses working during the day in October 2016. Meanwhile, 85% – 190 hospitals – missed their target for nurses working at night in the same month.

The HSJ reported: “The majority of hospitals below their planned staffing levels for nurses were at or above plan for healthcare assistant staffing, suggesting some sites might be filling gaps in the nursing workforce with less qualified staff. In all eight quarters, the majority of hospitals exceeded their planned HCA staffing levels, with even more exceeding their HCA plans at night.”

Professor Peter Griffiths, from Southampton University and who was a member of the NHS Improvement safe staffing committee for acute wards, said: “This is clearly not a good place for the NHS to be and it isn’t getting any better.”

He said using healthcare assistants to fill gaps in nurse staffing could be a reasonable strategy. However, he added: “If that becomes a long-term approach to filling gaps you could very easily delude yourself that you’re maintaining safety because you’re maintaining numbers. But actually all the research shows the key workforce for maintaining the safety of patients is the registered nursing workforce, so there is the risk of a false reassurance.”

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