Date Published: 17 April 2007

Student nurses left unsupervised in charge of patients, warns RCN

Student nurses are being left in sole charge of patients during clinical placements, according to a survey by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN).

The survey, which is launched on Student's Day at the RCN's annual Congress in Harrogate, also showed that most students failed to report their concerns about being left in charge, often because they worried it could affect their marks.

More than 1,500 student nurses from across the UK were asked about their experiences during their clinical placements. 44% said they had been left unattended with patients without any warning and without a registered nurse or doctor present. Of those 93% said it had happened more than once:

  • Eight out of ten (80.99%) reported being left unsupervised on three or more occasions.
  • Of the 553 first year students surveyed, 42% said they had been left on their own
  • 15% said they had witnessed adverse events while left unattended.

Dr Peter Carter, General Secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said:

This is yet another example of how deficits-driven cost cutting is compromising patient safety.

_ Up and down the country, we are seeing nursing jobs being lost and posts being frozen and deleted to cut costs. That means those registered nurses left have to do ever more with even fewer resources. It also means they have even less time to devote to supporting the next generation of nurses during their clinical placements.

_ Government guidelines state that students should spend 40% of their time with their mentors but it is clear that this important time is being squeezed because of time pressures. We know that having a good mentor can make a big difference to whether a student completes their training. Students must feel they are able to speak up if they are not getting the support and supervision they need, while trusts and universities have a duty to act on any complaints.

The vast majority of students surveyed (84%) said they did not report the unsupervised period to their university or workplace. More than a third (35%) said they thought the complaint would not be taken seriously and another third (33%) were worried it might affect the mark they received for the placement.

The financial crisis in the health service also continues to hit newly-qualified nurses with a recent RCN poll revealing nearly three-quarters were searching for a permanent job months after qualifying.

In October 2006, the RCN surveyed 500 newly qualified nurses and more than 2,200 student nurses on their employment prospects. Of the newly qualified nurses questioned, 71% were still searching for a band 5 nursing job - the level at which all nurses begin their career – and the majority (86%) were not confident of finding a permanent position.

Dr Peter Carter added:

I am hearing worrying stories from nurses who qualified last September who are still unable to get jobs because trusts are freezing entry level posts to save money. Now these nurses face the prospect of competing with the next wave of graduates from this February.

_ The longer newly-qualified nurses spend away from a clinical setting it makes it even harder for them to get their first job. Unless we welcome these newly qualified nurses into the profession now, we risk losing them forever.

Hannah Harwood, a third year student in the East Midlands, is in the process of looking for a job for when she qualifies in August. She said:

I am really worried about finding a job when I finish my course. I really need to stay in the area because of my husband's job and because we have a house here. I've done all this is training and I'm desperate to work but if I can't find a job locally, I'll have no choice but to leave the health service completely.

The RCN is calling for a year's guaranteed work for all newly qualified nurses, similar to a scheme that has already been put in place in Scotland.

Source: Royal College of Nursing (RCN), UK.
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