According to research compiled by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in the UK, nursing staff shortages are so acute now that one in three are too busy to relieve patients of their pain, give medication or talk to patients – and in some cases, patients are left to die alone.

The researchers also found that 53% of nurses felt that the quality of care their patients were receiving was suffering because they could not complete all their tasks during their shift. This included changing patient’s position in bed to prevent bed sores, brushing their teeth and completing patient records.

Of the 30,000 nurses that were surveyed for the study, many said they were left to care for as many as 25 patients at a time, despite regulations that each nurse should care for no more than eight patients at a time. One nurse said, “I feel like I’m spinning plates, except the plates are patients – that to me is the worst feeling. A feeling of no control. Going from crisis to crisis continuously is so incredibly stressful.” Another said being unable to attend to a dying patient was “soul-destroying.”

Nurses are reaching breaking point

The RCN said that such lapses in care were dangerous because they increased the risk of someone facing complications. Indeed 53% of the respondents said that they had been compromised during their last shift by having to move into departments where they had little experience.

One nurse lamented, “I drove home from work sobbing today, knowing that the patients I cared for didn’t get even a fraction of the level of care I would consider acceptable. I would be devastated if my family or friends were in the hospital I work in, as there are just not enough staff to go around.”

Earlier this year, the RCN found that one in nine posts were vacant. Yet despite this, 44% said no action was taken when they complained about the level of understaffing in their wards. Unsatisfied, many are inclined to quit the NHS. Janet Davies, RCN chief executive said, “when this many professionals blow the whistle, they cannot be overlooked."

A number of hospitals have had to bring in volunteers to sit with patients at the end of life while some child patients were left without food as staff had to prioritise treatment. The RCN described some of the stories as "desperately sad".

Chris Perry, a former director of nursing in the south-west of England who retired earlier this year said the report was "sadly all too familiar". She recounted how she often had to "scrabble around" to find staff to fill gaps but could not despite being willing to pay the most expensive agency prices.

A need for government's call for action

A Department of Health spokesman said it was funding 10,000 training places by 2020. “We are helping the NHS to make sure it has the right staff, in the right place, at the right time. That’s why there are over 29,600 more professionally qualified clinical staff including over 11,300 more nurses on our wards since May 2010.”

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced on 3 October that 14,500 nurse apprenticeships will be made available by 2019, and that instead of going to university and taking out loans, nurses can “earn as they learn” on the job. “The NHS will be looking after a million more over 75's in just a decade, so we need to jump-start nurse training. … We will also improve retention rates among our current workforce with new flexible working arrangements,” he said.

"The NHS is growing our workforce, opening up new routes into nursing, and helping people come back to practice after career or family breaks,” assured Professor Jane Cummings, chief nursing officer for England.

One solution is male nurses

Jacqueline Eccles, a leading nursing expert and a lecturer in mental health nursing at the University of Dundee in Scotland, said that men are a “virtually untapped” resource that could be used to fill the nursing vacancies since automation is “sweeping away” many male-dominated jobs.

“Studies show that patients see little difference between the care provided by male nurses and that provided by their female counterparts. Sometimes they feel that male nurses are gentler and more attentive, in particular when providing personal care,” she said.

There is a strong negative gender stereotype that nursing is not for men. Last year, only 11.4% of nurses in the UK were male, a negligible increase from five years ago when it was 11%.

“Male nurses encountered the prejudicial (and incorrect) view that they were either gay or sexual predators. … Nurses are traditionally cast as the ‘helpers’, with male doctors swooping down to save the day. … Bringing gender balance to a ward may also go some way to challenging the view of a nurse as a doctor’s handmaiden,” she said. MIMS

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