Nursing Opinion

Why the coronavirus needs to recast and reset the value of nursing for everyone?

Paul Edwards, Director of Clinical Services, Dementia UK

Coronavirus is causing distress and pain to so many right now, and there will be a need for nurses to support society long after the acute phase of the pandemic has eased. Nurses will play their part in helping people put their lives and communities back together – they deserve to be valued not just in the Year of the Nurse but also beyond.

Everyone in the health and social care sector is playing their part in the greatest health crisis of our lifetimes, but we should be mindful that it is nurses who have much to gain from a reputational reset during and after this crisis. It is after all nurses who have often been denied pay rises; who work in a profession still hindered by gendered assumptions about roles; and who sometimes do not have access to mental health support. In a world which needs and values care and support now more than ever, it is fortuitous that this is the Year of the Nurse. It’s times like this which will allow us to really question what the values of nursing should be and how these are and will ultimately be perceived by the rest of the population, across our personal and professional lives.

Fundamentally, nursing has and always will be an art and science; an art in the way nurses can get to know the people and families behind a person’s condition, and a science in the way nurses draw from evidence to understand how a patient’s long-term condition can be affected by secondary conditions, such as dementia and dehydration. The current pandemic has allowed us however to see a new perspective within nursing; one which sees it as a force for social good and social change. This virus has without a doubt rippled across so many families and lives, including health and social care professionals with a number having sadly lost their lives while providing critical care and support. It is however nurses who are at people’s sides delivering critical care and support, but also a listening or a comforting voice no matter what or who they are delivering care for. These values  hold firm now, as they have done in the past and as much as they should in the future.

Managing the threat of coronavirus requires continual adaptation and change amongst our health and social care workforces, in addition to the emotional challenge of caring for others. Looking after one’s own health and that of loved ones is key too. Dementia specialist Admiral Nurses are some of the many nurses playing their part. Some of these nurses have had to change the way they support people with dementia and their carers from a face to face to a virtual capacity; some Admiral Nurses have had to widen their scope of practice to support other parts of their organisations; and many are going above and beyond to support their local communities alongside their work. Heart-warming certainly, but it also demonstrates the ability nurses have to react with bravery, respond with altruism and review with honesty. These are very much values which should inform societal decisions more widely, such as mental health support for health and social care workers in addition to the supply of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). The value we place on those giving care should of course be followed by a response by giving them the tools they need for the job.

The other important side of nursing we are seeing is that of leadership. Every one of us is trying to support people through these times and a much broader spirit of collaboration across teams is prevalent. It is by no means perfect and when we are through this, nursing will have its issues to address, in particular the need to maintain collaboration across health and social care nursing. This virus has after all shown just how wide the rift can be between health and social care. It is nurses who will be in the prime position to redress this balance.  With their integrity and their oversight, they are the gatekeepers between families’ access to health and social care and vice versa. It is imperative that we think about things more holistically, joining up the dots for families so they know exactly where the support is. But also allowing systems to work together; a key example of this is a recognition that community support can be integral in reducing hospital admissions, which community nurses are adept at but whose value can be unseen

This virus has permeated across so many areas and it’s this which has led to the breaking down of barriers across nursing sectors too, and perhaps a different understanding amongst society toward how wide the role of nurses can be. There is a growing acknowledgment for nurses who work outside of the NHS in such sectors as social care, prisons, and the military, in industry and in the charitable sectors. That is both helpful and hopeful as for too long we have seen other non-NHS nursing as poor relations in the nursing family. Nursing is nursing; it is equally valuable and we should never knowingly or unknowingly undermine one area of nursing over others.

Perhaps in the past we have taken nursing for granted and haven’t promoted its value in society. This has to change and we already seeing important developments like bolstering the representation of nurses in media, particularly with Ruth May, Chief Nursing Officer for England, having a presence at the coronavirus Downing Street press briefings. We need to keep the focus on nursing and provide the support and opportunities to develop the knowledge and skills of nurses, and retain them. The pandemic may well inspire people to enter and respect such a rich and diverse profession where bravery, altruism and honesty rule the day.

For further information about the work of Dementia UK and its Admiral Nurses, please visit dementiauk.org

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