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Health Insight April 2002: The crucial role of nurses in the NHS

  Nurses have had a very high profile following the budget. At the Royal College of Nursing annual congress in Harrogate, general secretary Dr Beverley Malone, said nurses were pivotal to the government’s ambitious plans for upgrading the NHS and this must be recognised by improvements in pay, welfare and working conditions. Dr Malone agreed that the government had met its election pledges to recruit more nurses to the NHS, but, she said, ‘I see a great need for emphasis on retaining and keeping the mature nurses right in the NHS.’ John Austin, a Labour member of the Commons Health Select Committee agrees with the nurses’ campaign for more pay. ‘I do believe that nurses have been underpaid for many, many years,’ he said. ‘Unless we can recruit and retain skilled staff patient care will suffer.’ However, the NHS Confederation, which represents health service managers, has warned that the reform ministers want to see in the NHS will not take place if a large part of the £40 billion investment announced by the Chancellor in the budget is eaten up by pay rises.

The case for better pay for nurses received some encouragement in the form of a paper published in the British Medical Journal. Researchers from the Department of Primary Care at the University of Bristol found that patients were more satisfied with the care they received from a nurse than from their GP. A review of thirty-four studies found nurse practitioners – specially trained nurses – offered longer consultations and carried out more investigations than doctors. They offered more advice on self-care and managing conditions, and scored better on communications than doctors.

The role of nurses in GP surgeries has been expanded recently. Nurse prescribing was first piloted on a limited basis in 1994. By September 2001 more than 22,000 district nurses, health visitors, and practice nurses had been trained to prescribe from a limited list. Now specially trained ‘nurse prescribers’ will, for the first time, be allowed to write prescriptions for a wide range of drugs including antibiotics for infections.

Sadly, after all this encouragement, a poll published recently in the Nursing Times says that three-quarters of nurses think the NHS is no longer safe in the hands of a Labour government. However, it should be pointed out that the survey was based on replies by 1,455 nurses to a questionnaire in the magazine and could not be guaranteed to be a statistically representative example.

Source: BBC Online, Press releases (DoH), Guardian 16th April

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