By Yuri Prasad
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NHS survey shows most shifts understaffed

“All you can do is plough on,” says overworked NHS nurse
Issue 2808
Protesting NHS nurse

NHS nurse protests for better pay and conditions in central London. (Gary Knight)

Only a quarter of nursing shifts have the planned number of nurses on duty, putting patients and health staff at risk. That’s the shocking conclusion of a survey of more than 20,000 frontline health workers published this week.

According to the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) union, most nurses warn that staffing levels on their last shift were not sufficient to meet the needs of patients. Staff are regularly having to work extra hours to cover unfilled posts. “In a specialist hospital like mine, if your ward is short by one nurse, it’s not catastrophic for patients,” Shirley, a central London nurse told Socialist Worker.

“That’s because we miss our breaks and stay on our feet all day or all night. And, we stay late to make sure a backlog of work doesn’t carry over to the next shift. Proper patient documentation at the end of your shift is a legal duty.”

But Shirley says she has worked occasional shifts at other hospitals which are more dangerous. “I’ve been on wards where there are hardly any permanent staff, or where I’ve been the only qualified nurse on duty,” she said.

“In that situation all you can do is administer patients’ medication. You can’t do any personal care, such as washing or changing pads. A patient can be in soiled bedding for six hours before I can get to them.”

The effect of nursing under these circumstances is corrosive. “To cope, you have to find a way of switching off and not hearing all the bed buzzers,” she said. “You know no one is going to come and save you. All you can do is plough on.

And the resulting fatigue is dangerous. About half of all hospital doctors and nurses have had car accidents or experienced near misses while driving home after a night shift. The risks are calculated as the same posed by drivers over the legal alcohol limit. That’s what delegates to a European medical conference were told last week.

  • Shirley is not the nurse’s real name.

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