This article was written for The Telegraph Student section.
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NHS staffing shortages are forcing student nurses into situations they are neither qualified or prepared for, according to testimonies given to Telegraph Student Writers by student nurses training around the country.
According to the students, whose names have been changed to protect their identity, many are being overworked by mentors and hospital staff too overburdened to provide adequate provision and training – leaving many “distressed” and “exhausted” while on their placements.
“Placement is just so exhausting,” said student nurse Helen*, 24, who is from Ireland and came to England to study. Recounting how she was left alone to cry in a toilet after seeing a corpse for the first time, she said: “I get that staff are stressed and busy, but if you’re going to choose to be a mentor for a student, you have to actually check on them when there’s a distressing situation.”
Nadia, 21, who specialises in neonatal nursing, said that staff shortages often led to students taking on “more complex” cases than expected. “We often miss breaks, and when nurses are tired that’s when more mistakes occur, like drug errors.”
Student nurses usually complete two placements each academic year, and in different sections of the NHS, for example, outpatient or community. Placements are assessed, and some students feel they cannot raise concerns without risking their final grade.
Anna, 21, recounted how her mentor was suspended when a patient whose heart tracing was delayed for several weeks died. “The patient was in their early 40’s and had several co-morbidities. I think when my mentor saw the date of birth, she thought that it was not a priority.”
For several weeks the home visit kept getting pushed back. “This patient lived only about 400 feet from the hospital where our office was based. Eventually I suggested that I phone the GP and do a joint visit with him instead.” Anna found the patient “half rotten” at home.
Student nurse Rebecca, 22, said that she sometimes feels as if she is “fulfilling the job of a HCA [Healthcare Assistance]”.
“Some mentors have been known to abuse their role,” she said. “If there is a shortage of healthcare assistants on the ward then of course it is not beneath student nurses to bathe patients or brush their teeth. But we want to enhance our knowledge as well. Some people finish an eight week placement and feel like their knowledge was not boosted whatsoever.”
Mentors require specialist training before becoming qualified. Speaking to The Telegraph, Anne Corin, the Head of Education at The Royal College of Nursing, said: “Students need thorough support and supervision, but as winter pressures push many services to the limit, this is becoming more and more difficult.”
Student nurses are not only faced with mounting workloads; many are also struggling to make ends meet. In July last year the Government confirmed its decision to scrap NHS bursaries for nursing and allied health professional students in England, replacing them with student loans.
In a survey conducted by The Royal College of Nursing, 89 percent of nurses who responded believed that the cuts would lead to decreased numbers of student nurses. 80 percent believed the cuts would have a negative impact on patient care.
“With 24,000 vacancies in the NHS, it has never been more crucial to attract people into the nursing profession. However, the removal of bursaries is already acting as a significant deterrent, and applications are down by 20 percent,” said Corin.
She continued: “Nursing education needs to be a major priority for the future. Only with an efficient system of both attracting and training high quality nursing students, will the health service break out of the vicious cycle of nursing shortages and ever-mounting pressure.”
The bursary cuts have already resulted with some student nurses dropping out of their courses.
“I think that the people who suffer the most from this bursary cut are the student nurses who are guardians or parents. They simply cannot survive on £80 a month – especially if they’re a single parent,” said Anna.
“So many people are dropping out now because they can’t afford to keep studying at university, and some of them would have made really good, kind, caring nurses. The kind of nurses that we need in this country.”
Several student nurses described the negative effects of under-staffing on patients. “On my third placement there was a young girl who needed to have an NG tube put in,” said Meera, 22. “The doctor explained the procedure and it really frightened her, but because we were so overworked it took about three hours before we were able to do it, so this girl spent three hours panicking and crying about a tube going up her nose and down her throat.
“I eventually had enough and did it myself. I felt really out of my depth, but knew it had to be done.”
“I was on a geriatric ward in Portsmouth and it was really understaffed,” said Jess, 21.
“There was this patient who must have been about 90. He looked really miserable. As he had severe dementia it was difficult to communicate with him to find out what I could do to help, but after about 20 minutes of sitting down with him I finally realised that the water glass on the tray in front of him was out of his reach. It was such a simple task – move the glass closer to the patient so he could drink – but everyone was so busy rushing around that nobody had really noticed him.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities