Personal Injury, Serious Injury & Clinical Negligence

Nursing in crisis?

Nursing shortages reach critical levels

Hospitals across the country are suffering from severe shortages of nursing staff. New figures from the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) show that the problem is particularly acute in London with more than 10,000 vacancies in the capital being left unfilled. Over the past two years the number of unfilled posts has been steadily growing but it has now reached critical levels.

Part of the problem for London is that pay restrictions due to austerity measures mean that with increased housing and living costs, more nurses are choosing to work outside the capital as they can no longer afford to live and work there.

However, staffing problems are not confined to London and in August when a survey was undertaken across the country, 92% of 225 acute hospital trusts in England were unable to run wards with their planned number of nurses and were falling short of safe staffing levels.

In addition 81% of hospitals did not have enough registered nurses working at night and 79% of hospitals missed the target for registered nurse staffing across both day and night.

In an interview before Christmas on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, RCN Chief Executive, Janet Davies said:

We went through a period of time where we were trying to save money. We cut posts, we didn’t train enough nurses and we’re still feeling the effect of that.’

Sadly staff shortages often lead to inadequate care with too few nurses being expected to care for too many patients. Funding of new nursing posts has been compounded by trusts spending excessive amounts of money on agency staff to keep wards staffed leaving them with less money to allocate to recruiting and training new staff.

Nurses march in protest at bursary cuts

The Government’s solution to all of this is to withdraw the current system of bursaries available to student nurses and replace them with loans to bring student nurses in line with the rest of the student population. They say that this will result in additional places being available.

A Department of Health spokesperson, commenting on the proposed reforms said:

The current funding system for health students is not working. Removing the cap on university places will mean more home grown nurses and midwives for the NHS and students will receive around 25% more financial support whilst they study than they do currently. These changes will put health students on the same system as all other students and we expect this to lead to up to 10,000 additional nursing places over this parliament.’

However, the proposed solution is not that straightforward as the Department of Health suggest. Currently student nurses work on hospital placements which, in the future, would effectively be unpaid work and because they are occupied both with their studies and working they would not (unlike other students) be in a position to seek alternative employment to subsidise their studies.

Furthermore many nurses train when they are older and there are many single parents who are outraged with the changes and who have pointed out that taking out additional debt to fund their studies would not have been worthwhile. A recent survey of 2,000 student nurses indicated that nine out of ten would not have applied for the nursing degree without access to the bursary.

Marina Down, 22, a single mum and student mental health nurse at King’s College London said:

To think that the opportunity I had is going to be taken from prospective nurses, who like me, just want to help people, means I can’t not fight for them…I wouldn’t be able to study were it not for my bursary.”

The pressure on the already embattled Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt was mounting on Saturday, as nurses marched in London, Manchester and Newcastle in protest at the proposed changes ahead of the proposed junior doctor’s strikes; the first of which is a 12 hour walkout planned for 12 January unless it is averted by last ditch talks.

What does all this mean for patients?

Sadly, the healthcare professionals who are caught up in these battles are trying to maintain delivery of excellent health services but with chronic underfunding, Patient safety is suffering and as lawyers, we all too frequently hear stories about care which would have been different had the system been in better shape.

The Department of Health’s solution is to cut off the problem at the root as while they fight frontline medical staff, they are seeking to impose through a separate consultation reforms to the claims system which could seriously reduce access to justice, if harm has been caused.

You or a family member may have been affected by the issues in this article if you have received care as a result of unsafe staffing levels. For advice on whether you might be able to bring a claim please contact a member of the team on 0800 316 8892.