Preparing the new nursing generation

When 2020 was earmarked as the International Year of the Nurse and Midwife to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale – one of Derbyshire’s most celebrated residents as well as the universally-acknowledged pioneer of modern nursing – few could have anticipated what the year would bring for the profession.

The coronavirus pandemic, which even threatened the life of the UK’s prime minister and has led to the death of many thousands across the globe, has thrown a spotlight on the role of healthcare professionals, not to mention the risks they face.

In Britain, we see healthcare through the prism of the National Health Service, which enjoys continued public support for its core principles – tax funded, free and comprehensive care for citizens – and the perception of care it provides. But there is also a perception that it lacks resources and staff, according to an Ipsos MORI poll commissioned by The Health Foundation.

In fact, its current nursing vacancy levels are estimated to be around 44,000 posts, potentially rising to 100,000 within a decade, The Health Foundation reports.

Paula Holt smiling at the camera

If ever there was a time that we demonstrate the value of nurses and healthcare professions, this is it.

Dr Paula Holt
Pro Vice-Chancellor Dean of the College of Health and Social Care

Valuing the healthcare profession

Prior to the pandemic, the feared loss of many staff from the European Union following Brexit was foremost in the mind of many observers of the service. The Conservative Party made much of the commitment to ‘Strengthen our NHS’ in its 2019 election manifesto, pledging to provide 50,000 new nurses and introduce an NHS visa to fast track qualified overseas staff offered jobs in the service.

The new government quickly announced a non-repayable nursing grant of £5,000-£8,000 to come into nursing and allied health professional education.

But, with stress affecting around 40% of current nursing staff and a majority feeling dissatisfied with pay rates, according to The Kings Fund analysis of the NHS Staff Survey results, attracting sufficient numbers of new recruits would be a challenge for any government.

If any positive can be taken from the pandemic, could it prove to be the public reaction to the work of those on “the frontline”?

“If ever there was a time that we demonstrate the value of nurses and healthcare professions, this is it,” says Dr Paula Holt, Pro Vice-Chancellor Dean of the College of Health and Social Care at the University of Derby. 

“They are doing such an amazing job. I think it has also made people realise what a very narrow view we have of what healthcare professionals are. Yes, they think of nurses, but often forget the many other professions there are in the sector.”

Not all nursing and care happens in the NHS. It is also in independently run health and social care settings, the voluntary sector, and out in the community. And it is constantly evolving.

“We are proactive and innovative as a university in not only meeting but anticipating the needs of the sector as a whole,” says Dr Holt.

“All of our senior team members are appointed governors on NHS trust boards in the region and frequently meet with NHS colleagues, so we have really good intelligence and information about what is going on in the sector, what the workforce requirements are, and how we can best meet them.”

That responsiveness is appreciated within the service.

Two nurisng students stood in their uniform

A sustainable future workforce

Around 500 of our nursing students have been supporting staff in hospitals and other care settings across the region.

“Student placements are invaluable to resourcing our services and for the provision of high quality safe care,” explains Faith Sango, Head of People Development for Derbyshire Community Health NHS Foundation Trust and Derbyshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust.

“For us, supporting student placements means that we have a sustainable future workforce to meet the demands of the ever-changing healthcare system and to succession plan for our ageing workforce.”

The students “have stepped up with so much energy, positivity, motivation and compassion” alongside NHS staff during the coronavirus, she said, adding: “It’s times like this when we are reminded about the value of health and social care careers.”

Aside from undergraduate study, continuing professional development opportunities are helping experienced staff adapt to increasing demands and changes in practice.

There are areas of nursing which remain a challenge to recruit to, however.

One of which is mental health and learning disabilities nursing, where the volume of skilled staff coming on stream to provide the required care in settings ranging from schools to prisons, remains difficult. For those who do move into this area, the demands are considerable, but rewarding.

“Working as a nurse in the mental health and learning disabilities fields is highly challenging – you are likely to be caring for people with a range of conditions, from autism and schizophrenia to dementia and addiction,” explains Alison Kilduff, the University's former Head of Mental Health Nursing.

“The needs of the people you are caring for are likely to be high and extremely individualised. This presents a challenge in the daily job, and requires patience, tenacity and relentless enthusiasm.”

There is a recurrent theme of “challenging, but hugely rewarding” when describing almost any nursing role, so why is it that so few men are tempted to take up the profession?

A student nurse sat next to a bed with his uniform on

‘De-gendering’ the profession

‘De-gendering’ the nursing profession is proving an elusive goal. Just 11% of nurses in the UK are men, a proportion which has barely increased for several years, according to the Nursing and Midwifery Council. The main factor is probably the persistence of the stereotype, perceived by boys from quite a young age, that nursing is a female profession, as reported in Nursing Times.

“I find it really difficult that we are so short of nurses and allied healthcare professionals and yet still underrepresented by men in the professions,” says Dr Holt. “Boys and men should be encouraged to see the value and career opportunities of these roles.”

Senior Nursing Lecturer David Foreman, a registered nurse, believes the title of "nurse" is an “impossible hurdle” for some men to overcome.

“That might make it sound like I want to scrap the title to attract more men into the profession, but that simply isn’t true,” he explains.

“While nursing is entrenched in stereotypes, it is also synonymous with care, compassion and competence – three of the six Cs (NHS core values) – and to lose those values with a change of the name would fundamentally change the nature of the relationship between us and the people we care for.”

Student Ben Bosworth is among those men who are moving into the profession though, having turned his back on a 20-year career in retail to go into nursing.

“It’s one of the best things I have ever done,” he says. “Particularly seeing the impact you can make on the lives of a person and their family.”

In the 20-plus years since Derby began to offer its first nursing courses, its students and graduates will have faced and met many challenges, and have positively impacted on many lives, but perhaps nothing on the scale we have seen so far in 2020, nor the level of public appreciation for the work they do.

As Dr Bill Whitehead, Deputy Dean of the College of Health and Social Care at the University, puts it: “Across our whole registered nursing profession, I don’t think anyone could have predicted just how much this really would be the year of the nurse.”