Why the role of the nursing associate is the role of the future

The role isn’t just clearly defined – it is one that the health service has been crying out for, for a number of years.

Being a registered or associate nurse is no small feat. The time, physical and emotional effort that is put in from the beginning is taxing, but it is all for a cause much larger than one’s self.

From healthcare support workers to registered nurses and at every stage in between, every member of the UK’s nursing community has a vital role to play in the health service. This is why the recent announcement from the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) – which warned that the lack of clarity around the roles of nursing associates could jeopardise patient care – appears ill-advised.

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The announcement saw Janet Davies, chief executive and general secretary of the RCN, state that “to ensure safe and effective patient care, nursing associate training must be consistent across England, and nursing associates must have supernumerary status while they train.”

The health service is crying out for Nursing Associates.

However, from my experience in working with nursing associates as course leader for the apprenticeship programme that is being delivered in partnership with the University of Central Lancashire, the opposite couldn’t be clearer. In fact, the role isn’t just clearly defined – it is one that the health service has been crying out for, for a number of years.

While it is important to emphasise that nursing associates should not replace registered nurses, there’s no arguing with the figures that highlight a nationwide staffing issue, with low uptake in student nurse training and reduced recruitment numbers. What appears to be missed in this warning from the RCN is that associate nurses could help to remedy this problem even further. However, this can’t be done when formal and public announcements degrade the competency of associate nurses.

When you dissect the impact that associate nurses have had on the care of patients, it is more likely to be a positive than a negative one, with quality of care likely to increase. For many patients, nursing associates are more than just a helping hand. As one nursing associate eloquently put it: “We are the eyes for those that can’t see. We are the ears for those that can’t hear and don’t understand what other health professionals have said. We are the memory for those who can’t remember what’s going on, and we are always the ones to celebrate with them when they get good news. We are the ones to hold their hands through difficult times.

“Our kindness and compassion does not just spread to patients and relatives, it goes to other staff too, who we are there to help and support and to make sure that no one is struggling.”

Nursing associates give hope to the NHS.

There’s no doubt about the positive effect trainee nursing associates can have – from sitting with patients to spending time caring and comforting people.  The role is wholly valued across the healthcare sector, and their presence often gives hope to the most downtrodden of patients, and more importantly, hope to the NHS.

Making the role of nursing associates supernumerary would strip all of this away. As well as this, the training and skills development of nursing associates would be hampered, and more stress and an increased workload would be placed onto an already overworked qualified nurse. As it stands, the role of nursing associates is perfectly placed to allow them to develop new skills in a safe environment, while being assessed by qualified staff.

As well as this, nursing associates play a crucial role in improving patient care. Having nursing associates working on a busy unit alongside a qualified nurse can only enhance quality of care, and helps nurses feel more valued and help their workload as teamwork improves.

The introduction of nursing associates is real step forward terms of education and training. They are provided with real life skills and experience, giving caring individuals the chance to make a difference, to help foster change, and to deliver a high quality of care, with patients commenting on their professionalism and compassion.

Nursing associates play an important role within our healthcare service and have made a positive impact in a short time. With nursing associates in place, there is hope and a bright future for our NHS.

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Dr Tony Gill

Tony is a senior lecturer in mental health nursing at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) with 30 years of experience in healthcare and education. As well as gaining a PhD whilst working in and running a busy ward, and spending three years working as a compliance inspector for the Care Quality Commission, Tony has most recently taken on the role as course leader to oversee UCLan’s nursing associate apprenticeship scheme, delivered in partnership with seven NHS trusts across the North West.
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