Patient safety warning over nurse shortages

Author: Jo Carlowe

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Sep 17, 2019
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A shortage of nursing staff in England is putting patient safety in danger, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) warns today.

The RCN’s message is part of a new campaign, launched to coincide with the first World Patient Safety Day. The campaign encourages the public to speak out about the impact of what the RCN describes as “England’s 40,000 nurse shortage”.

It calls for legislation to be brought forward in England to help address the nursing workforce crisis.

Earlier this year, nurses and support workers in Scotland secured new legislation on safe staffing levels after a nurse staffing law was introduced in Wales in 2016.

The 2013 Francis Report on failings of care Stafford Hospital concluded that the main factor responsible was a significant shortage of nurses at the hospital. Nurse numbers at NHS acute trusts across England then increased as managers took steps to try to prevent similar scandals in the future.

But a new analysis by the RCN shows that for every one extra nurse NHS acute trusts in England have managed to recruit in the five years since 2013/14, there were 157 extra admissions to hospital as emergencies or for planned treatment.

Last year the number of extra admissions for every additional nurse taken on increased to 217. The analysis shows that the extra 9,894 nurses recruited to NHS hospitals since 2013/14 is dwarfed by the additional 1,557 074 admissions over the same period.

Public polling carried out for the College to mark the campaign launch reveals that:

  • 71% of respondents in the UK think there are not enough nurses in the NHS to provide safe care to patients
  • The top priority among those polled for any additional funding for the NHS in England was recruiting more nurses (chosen as top priority by 37% of respondents in England from a list of eight alternatives)
  • 67% of respondents in England wrongly think the government has a legal responsibility to ensure there are sufficient nursing staff.

The campaign advertisements feature the strapline, “Nurses are the people’s people. Now we need to fight for them”.

They urge readers and users to sign a new petition the RCN has created, which reads: “I’m calling on the government to invest in tomorrow’s nurses, end this crisis and make clear in law who is truly accountable for safe (and effective) patient care.” 

The College is calling on ministers and NHS leaders in England to take the following actions:

  • Introduce legislation to ensure accountability for safe nurse staffing at all levels of health and care services in England
  • Ensure that a statutory body has responsibility for future nurse workforce planning 
  • Invest at least £1 billion in nurse higher education in order to reverse the reduction in the number of students both applying to and taking up places on nursing degree courses. 

Commenting on the campaign, Dame Donna Kinnair, RCN chief executive and general secretary, said: “Today we’re issuing a stark warning that patient safety is being endangered by nursing shortages. Staffing shortfalls are never simply numbers on a spreadsheet - they affect real patients in real communities.

“We’re calling on the public in England to fight for nurses and sign our petition calling on the Westminster government to invest in the future workforce and make clear who is accountable in law for safe patient care.

“Our polling shows almost two-thirds of people already fear there aren’t enough nurses to provide safe care – and they want recruiting more nurses to be the top priority for any extra funding for the NHS in England.

“Nurses are the single most trusted professional group in the whole country, with 96% of the public placing them at the top of a list of occupations including doctors, teachers, the police and scientists. Nursing staff are asking for your support in calling time on this crisis.”

Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, told OnMedica: “The number of nurse vacancies, particularly in mental health and learning disability services, remains a major concern for both employers and patients. Nurses do all they can to provide high quality and safe patient care, but they need help. We urgently need to see an ongoing commitment from the government to invest in the NHS workforce, as well as reform of the apprenticeship levy to enable degree apprenticeships.”

He added: "Employers and universities are working hard to develop new pathways into nursing in order to bridge the gaps, as well as making sure nurses stay within the NHS workforce. The restoration of CPD money is a big step forward, and members look forward to working to deliver the people plan to improve the recruitment and retention of our teams.”

An NHS spokesperson said: “The number of nurses, midwives and health visitors employed in the NHS in England continues to grow and this week the next phase of the ‘We Are The NHS’ recruitment campaign was launched which has so far seen a 4.5% increase in applications. The latest advert will be running on TV and streaming services for the next six weeks and we hope it will continue to inspire thousands of people to consider a rewarding career in nursing – a priority set out in the NHS Long Term Plan.”

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