Six months may seem like a relatively short period of time to have been in a new role, but since becoming Minister of State for Health last July I’ve had plenty of time to experience and appreciate the vital work our frontline NHS nurses do every day of the year. Nurses really are the lifeblood of our healthcare system.
They provide not only physical care for patients but emotional support at the best and worst times in their lives.
It is fantastic that there are now more nurses than ever on our wards – over 9,800 more since May 2010 and more than 51,000 training to join the profession.
I have already been lucky enough to meet many nurses on visits to hospitals, so much so that meeting staff, hearing their perspectives on patient care and thanking them for what they do, are among the most rewarding parts of my role.
But I would be the first to acknowledge that there are challenges ahead. Demand for care is the highest it has ever been, our population is ageing, and complex conditions are increasing. I also acknowledge that there is more we need to do in order to adapt to these challenges.
When frontline pressures are high, we need to build the strongest possible team of frontline staff to confront them. This is the only way that nurses, and their colleagues, can continue providing the highest quality of care for their patients.
This is why investment in the future nursing workforce is one of our top priorities. Backed by our most senior nursing leaders – including the Royal College of Nursing – we are widening access to the nursing profession in a number of ways.
A few weeks ago, the Health Secretary set out plans to develop new routes into nursing. Employers and our healthcare support workforce have said entry to the nursing profession through a full-time university degree is too rigid and inflexible, and doesn’t give them what they want or need.
The new nursing degree apprenticeship, starting from September 2017, will open up more opportunities to train as a nurse for those already working in the NHS or those for whom full-time university study is not a realistic option. Dependent on previous qualifications and experience, it will take aspiring nurses from a Care Certificate to Registered Nurse.
Those successful in securing an apprenticeship will undertake part-time study to pass their nursing degree before becoming a Registered Nurse, benefiting from the practical work of a job on a ward at the same time, as well as protected clinical placement learning.
By offering this level of flexibility, employers will be able to open up a career in nursing to people from all backgrounds and the NHS will have a nursing workforce equipped with the right skill mix needed for a modern day healthcare service.
We want to make sure we use every tool available to train and retain our nursing and care staff by opening work-based learning apprentice opportunities that previously would not have been possible.
The Nursing Associate role is another way to do this. The new role is designed to free up Registered Nurses to undertake the complex tasks they are trained for and take more of a lead in clinical decision-making. Nursing Associates will complement, not replace, Registered Nurses.
This role will offer many existing health and care assistants, who are a vital part of our health and care system, the opportunity to develop their careers towards becoming a Registered Nurse if they wish to do so.
We want our health and care system to be the safest in the world and we know the Nursing Associate role will require a significant amount of skilled judgement.
That is why we have asked the NMC to look into regulating the role and we expect a decision shortly.
Regulating the role will provide assurances on patient safety and would reflect widespread views expressed during consultation with the public.
In the meantime, there has already been a huge demand from applicants for this exciting new role and those who have been successful are starting their training at pilot sites across the country this month.
I am already planning to visit one of the pilot sites in the next few weeks and look forward to hearing from new recruits and seeing how they will benefit patient care.
But to deliver the best possible care to patients, we need to do more than recruit the right staff. We must create supportive, positive and open cultures in organisations.
Bullying and harassment can lead to low self-esteem, anxiety, depression and disengagement in our staff – nurses included. This in turn impacts upon their organisations, leading to low morale, reduced productivity, increased absenteeism, higher staff turnover and poorer patient care.
That is why I have made a personal pledge alongside NHS employers and trade unions to tackle bullying and harassment of NHS staff. I have challenged all NHS organisations to work in partnership with staff, publicly commit to positive action, track progress and make a difference.
When we think about innovation in relation to the NHS our minds can often jump to improved technology or a new wonder drug. But arguably, some of the most important innovation we undertake concerns our workforce – making sure they are supported and equipped to meet the constantly changing demands placed on our healthcare system.
Talented, dedicated nurses will always play a vital role in our health service. This is an important time for nursing and the government is absolutely committed to ensuring they have what they need to do their job well, in the same way that they are absolutely committed to meeting the needs of their patients.