It’s time to talk up the phenomenal skills within adult social care, says chief nurse Professor Deborah Sturdy, whose driving ambition is to change people’s minds about the social care nursing sector.
As the UK’s first chief nurse for adult social care, Professor Deborah Sturdy spends a lot of her time visiting care homes all across the country. ‘Usually,’ says Professor Sturdy over our video call, ‘I don’t think they’re putting on a show for me.
‘Some of them make me very nice coffee and things, but I think people have been honest with me about how tough it is. I can empathise with that because I know in my own experience that you just think, how am I going to get through tomorrow, because today just about finished me off?’
Since Professor Sturdy took on the newly created role of chief nurse in 2020, adult social care has become a lynchpin in the government’s plan to cut down hospital wait times, speed up ambulance queues, and beat the elective care backlog.
In last year’s autumn statement, the government earmarked cash for the sector with a £2.8bn increase in funding set for this year and a further £4.7bn for 2024.
Over 13,000 patients remain in hospital beds, despite being medically fit for discharge, due to a lack of available social care packages.
With the challenges for social care nursing in mind, one care home visit last November was a particularly memorable example for her, she says.
‘It was a service for people with profound learning disability,’ Professor Sturdy recalls. ‘I was watching carers supporting two young men who are both physically disabled and have a very complex learning disability.
‘They were telling them a sensory story about elephants. They were flicking them with water along with the story, and there was a huge amount of laughter going on.
‘People might think that that’s not a bad way to spend an afternoon: telling a story, but there is complexity and the intensity of work that was going on so that these individuals could enjoy themselves.
‘These people are not going to improve, what you’re doing is not going to improve their physical well-being and you do it, not just that day, but every single day; that’s social care, and those are the stories we need to tell’.
Adult social care, despite recent governmental attention, is a seriously challenged sector, with staffing issues being the most pressing problem. ‘Workforce,’ says Ms Sturdy, ‘is a universal challenge.
‘The volume [of recruits] is really important, but it’s how we recruit and retain the people with the right skills, and how we develop people so they feel valued in what they’re doing; that’s the biggest challenge we face across the system.’
With the government providing incentives for care homes to take in more hospital patients, demand on the adult social care sector is likely to grow. However, low pay compared with other sectors is creating a continuous drain on talent.
But in answer to a question on what could be done to help fight the employment crisis in social care nursing, Professor Sturdy’s answer didn’t involve payment or investment at all.
‘We need to change the narrative,’ says Professor Sturdy. ‘If you look in the four walls of a care home, a lot of these nurses are actually running nurse-led services, so we need to try and call them what they are.
‘If you start to use a different narrative around this it brings a different recognition for the skill set of social care nurses. The sector needs to talk up the phenomenal skills that social care nurses have.
‘It’s about opening people’s eyes,’ Professor Sturdy continues. ‘We have to see more placements in adult social care for undergraduates. As someone who very many decades ago was a student nurse and actually spent time in a care home, I remember every shift.
‘If you don’t experience it, how could you possibly know that it was a career option for you? I think it’s something every clinician should go through because how can we change the workforce of the future if we don’t have our staff understanding where people come from and go to in terms of care?’
Changing people’s minds about social care is something that drives Professor Sturdy in her role and she says that it is something she thinks about a lot in her role as chief nurse.
‘I’m delighted to be the first chief nurse for adult social care,’ Professor Sturdy told Nursing in Practice.
‘But I’m only one person. So, I’ve had to work with lots of other people in lots of organisations. I think that means being a champion and that voice and presence across a number of organisations is really important.
‘I’m sharing what’s going on in social care, talking to my NHS colleagues, getting them to think about the inclusivity of the profession in the widest sense.
‘I think that one of the things that’s really important in a role like this is that you keep grounded – so going out and having a presence in the sector and talking to nurses at the grassroots.’
As she looks ahead to the future, Professor Sturdy says she likes to think about how we look at the generation that will come after her, and what we could be done for the 16- and 18-year-olds that might be considering a career in the sector.
Social care, Professor Sturdy believes, has a bright future as a hub of nurse-led research and education. She lights up as she talks about all the possibilities she sees for the social care staff of the future.
‘We’ve been thinking about research, about education, thinking how we can build our evidence base; because those numbers talk when it comes to changing things. It’s really important to me that there is a foundation of those things there and I do think we are seeing more.
‘Social care has been a bit of a Cinderella sector,’ Professor Sturdy admits. ‘It’s been down in the basement, but now it’s at the ball.
‘It will be good to have walked away knowing you’ve landed social care in a good place, so that it’s recognised for the skills that are there.’