Ministers are set to announce today (19 November 2013) that, from next April, all hospital trusts in England will be required to publish data about nursing numbers on each of their wards. The announcement is part of the continuing implementation of many of the reforms recommended in the Francis Report which followed the scandalous deaths from poor care at Stafford Hospital. The Government is not, however, adopting the recommendations in full.
In particular, today's announcement does not go so far as to impose a minimum level of nursing care on hospital trusts. Instead, by the end of 2014, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) will assess the minimum level of staffing needed for each ward to be safe. Hospital trusts will then be required to disclose the number of nurses working on each ward, which will be published monthly on a dedicated website alongside the minimum level that NICE recommends.
Data will also be published on the number of deaths in hospitals and the number of so-called 'never events' – events so serious and avoidable that they should never be allowed to happen.
The Chief Nursing Officer, Jane Cummings, accepts that staffing levels are directly correlated to patient outcomes but defended the Government's decision not to impose minimum levels on the basis that different wards need different levels of staff and that the focus should be on improving the education and training that underpins care standards. The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) meanwhile called for mandatory standards, either through minimum nursing numbers or a measurable provision of a minimum level of care.
Commenting on the latest plans, Andrew Clayton, associate in Penningtons Manches' clinical negligence team said: "There is no doubt that the Francis Report is leading to widespread change in the NHS and a focus on patient safety. While imposing mandatory staffing levels alone would not guarantee a basic level of care, common sense dictates that there must be a minimum number of nurses on any given ward below which patient safety becomes compromised. Financial constraints and the availability of qualified staff are well publicised but the decision not to fix minimum staff numbers for each ward is an opportunity missed. The recommendations that NICE will make and the publication of staffing data will go some way to addressing the issue but, without clear sanctions, the system will still depend on the quality of regulation and the courage of whistle-blowers".