There are no quick fix solutions to solving staffing challenges
As Chief Nursing Officer, I am immensely proud of all our nurses and midwives and wish to pay tribute to the unwavering professionalism, commitment and dedication that has been so evident over the recent period of unprecedented pressures.
On behalf of everyone in Northern Ireland, I want to say thank you to all health and social care staff who have been working tirelessly in the face of extremely challenging circumstances.
I am very well aware that staffing levels are a source of great concern to nurses. I want to assure them - and the public - that the issue is being tackled strategically on a number of important levels.
In Northern Ireland, we are in a wonderful position of having a very strong interest in the nursing profession, with nursing places oversubscribed by approximately 10 applications for every university place. Non-completion rates are also lower in Northern Ireland compared with the rest of the UK. We have a longstanding reputation of educating high calibre nurses - skilled graduate professionals whose education takes three full years.
This means there are no 'quick fix' solutions to the shortage we currently face. However, the department is committed to ensuring we have sufficient nurses in our workforce and is proactively progressing a range of measures, including:
• Increased investment in undergraduate training. The department has substantially increased the number of nursing student places funded annually. This has been grown progressively from a baseline of 650 places per annum in 2014/15 to 901 by 2017/18. This represents an increase of 38.6% and an additional investment by the department of £9.5m per year.
• International Nurse Recruitment. A campaign commenced in May 2016 and is on course to meet the target of recruiting 622 nurses by March 2020.
• Regional Recruitment and Retention. A regional nursing recruitment group is leading work to streamline recruitment processes and encourage nurse retention. This includes regular contact with nursing students to promote job opportunities and all final year students are offered permanent jobs.
• Return to Practice Programmes. The Department funds the fees for the Return to Nursing practice programme delivered by Ulster University - to encourage nurses who are out of practice to return to the profession.
• Delivering Care Policy. The department's Delivering Care; Nurse Staffing in Northern Ireland is the agreed policy framework to ensure safe staffing levels across different settings. An investment of £12m has increased nurse staffing levels in acute hospital wards.
• HSC Workforce Strategy. The Department is finalising a major new Workforce Strategy aligned with the 'Delivering Together' transformation roadmap. It recognises the need for more investment in people, and effective workforce engagement and planning.
• Investment in Post registration Education. The department invested £7.6m in 2017/2018 for post-registration nursing and midwifery education. This investment is key to delivering transformational change, by enabling nurses to develop their practice and acquire specialist knowledge and skills for new and innovative roles. It is also important that time is released from administrative duties to allow nurses to nurse, and the department has funded a regional programme to free up ward sisters/charge nurses from administrative duties to focus on the clinical environment. The first phase will deliver 10 administrative support posts.
I firmly believe our nursing workforce in Northern Ireland has a vitally important role in leading transformational change in our HSC system. The department is committed to stable and sustainable services delivered through the ambitious reform programme set out in Delivering Together.
This is not an option but a must do to support our staff and citizens in Northern Ireland. In recognition of the role of nursing, the former minister established a Nursing and Midwifery Task Group to identify how this can be achieved and maximise the contribution that nurses make to improve outcomes for our population. The Task Group is due to report at the end of March 2018.
Radically reforming health and social care is one of the biggest challenges facing us all.
The resilience, compassion and professionalism demonstrated daily by our nurses show that they are very well placed for that challenge.
Charlotte McArdle is Northern Ireland's Chief Nursing Officer