saints or skivvies

There’s been plenty of hand-wringing since the announcement that, from 2013, all new nurses will have to spend three years studying for a degree to qualify.

At present, the majority train for two or three years and are awarded a diploma. Critics claim these higher standards mean that trainee nurses will spend time sitting in lectures when they |could be learning practical skills on the job.

I can’t honestly see the problem. The very mention of the word nurse results in a knee-jerk reaction from so many people. Nurses are right up there with the RSPCA, donkey sanctuaries and Princess Diana when it comes to being sanctified.

Sure, most nurses are highly committed to their jobs, but at the end of the day, they are specialised workers, not quasi saints or trainee miracle workers.

Medicine these days is increasingly high-tech. The old notion of a nurse holding your hand and offering a few words of emollient chat while taking your temperature is completely irrelevant |and arcane in today’s modern |hospitals.

A few years ago I took part in a television series that involved spending a couple of weeks working in a busy general hospital. It was crystal clear after one day that hard-pressed nurses couldn’t possibly do everything they were supposed to.

Increasingly, hospital wards are full of people who shouldn’t really be there at all.

General wards should only be catering for patients preparing or recovering from an operation or a procedure which means they are bedridden. Everything should be geared to limiting their time in hospital.

Add to that the fact that hospital food is generally repulsive and most elderly patients suffer from malnutrition, and it’s clear that a hospital is not somewhere you want to spend much time in.

Highly qualified nurses are needed to police standards and to speed up the recovery process. They must understand the latest developments in patient care, as well as being trained to direct a team and take decisions. That doesn’t mean they are not compassionate and caring. It’s just that in a modern hospital, leadership skills are essential.

Giving patients a bed bath and feeding them are tasks which should be carried out by assistants who, at the moment, are very poorly paid with a starting salary of just £13,000, a pittance for very challenging work in unpleasant circumstances.

On some of the wards in the hospital I saw, there were only two people helping to feed up to 15 old people at meal times. No wonder the patients didn’t want to eat — food was usually cold. The nursing profession needs to attract more men, and more high-calibre entrants who will take it forward and enable it to shed its out-of-date Florence Nightingale image.

In the past year, there has been an increasing amount of complaints about nurses who have failed to treat patients with respect and whose levels of care leave a lot to be desired.

By elevating the profession to graduate status, as well as increasing pay for assistants, patients will get a better deal. I encountered both good and poor nurses when my sister was seriously ill in hospital.

It seems the nursing profession is one that no one can discuss dispassionately — but insisting that nurses obtain a degree is a step in the right direction.

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