Almost one in seven nurses have admitted falling staffing numbers have affected the quality of care they deliver to their patients.
According to a Nursing in Practice survey of 635 primary care and community nurses, 68.3% think patient care has worsened in the wake of staffing cuts, with almost a third (31.3%) reporting patients have been “very affected” by dwindling nursing numbers.
Katherine Murphy, chief executive of the Patients Association, said the findings were “unacceptable”.
“We know that efficiency savings have to be made in the NHS but there is never a good time to reduce the number of frontline staff”.
“It is very worrying and unacceptable that nurses are coming out and admitting that standards of patient care are being compromised.”
Official figures from the NHS Information Centre shows the NHS workforce overall has fallen by almost 21,000 since May 2010 with qualified nursing posts down by more than 6,000, or 2.18%.
The number of qualified midwives has grown by 943 or 4.68% since May 2010 while the number of qualified health visitors has remained broadly the same (down 12 posts), despite a government drive to recruit 4,200 more health visitors by 2015.
While the percentage of nurses working in community services has increased by 0.62% from 2001 to 2011, the number of district nurses has fallen by 3,590.
Howard Catton, head of policy and international at the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), said the decline in nursing numbers is now a “trend” and not “blips”.
“There is a lack of proper oversight nationally and it is a failure of any policy in action which is resulting in the loss of nursing staff,” he said.
“We are very concerned about what the impact of these numbers will be on patient care – not in 20 or 30 years time but in 2014/15.”
More than two-thirds (69.7%) of nurses responding to the survey also said the staffing cuts have affected their physical and mental well-being, with a quarter being “very affected” by the changes.
“It is well known the profession is under great strain and the cuts to posts will take its toll on a number of nurses,” said Dr Peter Carter, chief executive and general secretary of the RCN.
“We know that nurses work on average seven hours overtime each week and with over 1,000 attacks on healthcare professionals each week – the majority of which are nurses – it is not easy to work in the NHS at the moment.
Health Minister Dr Dan Poulter said the NHS workforce is changing to reflect different patient needs.
“The health service is changing - average lengths of stay in hospitals are about one third shorter than they were ten years ago, and there is more surgery where patients don't have to stay overnight on a ward,” he said.
"The numbers of patients treated as day cases is 500,000 more than it was two years ago. The NHS workforce is changing to reflect this and the NHS workforce of tomorrow will be different to what it is today. But changes must be decided at a local level, based on evidence that they will improve patient care."
Yet, the survey also found just over half (50.7%) the primary and community care nurses polled said they have been prompted to leave the nursing profession because of the cuts made to staffing numbers.
Dr Carter described the findings as “worrying”.
You are currently leaving the Nursing in Practice site. Are you sure you want to proceed?