Comment: Our nursing numbers must add up

NHS management would do well to listen to staff. Picture: Greg Macvean
NHS management would do well to listen to staff. Picture: Greg Macvean
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Stressed, exhausted and overworked NHS staff are no good for patient care, and Theresa Fyffe says this has got to change

With a new poll showing that nine out of ten nurses in Scotland believe that staffing levels where they work are not always adequate to provide safe patient care, it’s time that the Scottish Government, health boards and those who work with our NHS take a long, hard look at where our health service is headed. We know that understaffing is one of the biggest challenges facing the service today, but when more than a quarter of nurses (27 per cent) polled say that staffing levels are rarely or never safe, the results of our survey should be a wake-up call to all those involved in running and managing our health service.

In our NHS today, we measure lots of activities to make sure the service is as effective as possible, from when someone goes into hospital, right up until they leave. Lots of phrases are bandied about – bed blocking, delayed discharges and waiting time targets being just some examples of what’s measured and where the problems lie.

Interestingly, it’s often said that what you measure is what’s most important to an organisation – and the recent scandal surrounding manipulation of waiting time targets in NHS Lothian bears this out. What all those involved forgot, however, in their efforts to meet targets was that health is all about people – and behind every target measurement, there’s an individual who just wants to get better and a nurse or healthcare assistant who wants to care.

Yet our survey shows just how far away we are from having enough nurses on our wards and out in the community. In the three years up to September 2012, we lost more than 2,000 nursing and midwifery posts across Scotland, while in NHS Lothian, more than 200 posts were cut up to December 2011. Such cuts can leave remaining staff overstretched and stressed – a survey we carried out last summer showed that three quarters of our members were experiencing increased stress at work, which will eventually impact patient care. Some health boards, however, including NHS Lothian, have realised they cut staff to the bone and are now recruiting. What we need now is for all health boards to use the tools they have in place – and which the Scottish Government has said must be used – to measure (there’s that word again) the number of nurses and healthcare assistants they need to provide safe patient care at all times, in all health settings.

For the past year, we’ve been monitoring the many pressures building up within our NHS because of our concerns about the number of staff and the capacity, ie: the number of beds in hospitals and resources within NHS Scotland, to deal with increasing patient demand. With evidence showing that having the right number of professionally qualified nurses looking after patients reduces patient mortality, there’s no excuse for understaffing and we urge health boards to take action now to reverse the staff cuts of recent years. Patients deserve no less.

• Theresa Fyffe is director of RCN Scotland.