Healthcare assistants (HCAs) working in the NHS are doing the jobs of nurses without the equivalent pay or education, says a new report from Unison.
The report, Care on the cheap, found that only 45% of HCAs feel the tasks they are asked to do, including giving patients medication, doing heart checks and inserting medical tubes, are appropriate to their level of competence.
Meanwhile, 39% say they have not received the training necessary to provide the care expected of them such as looking after dementia patients.
The findings are based on a survey of nearly 2,300 HCAs across the UK working in primary and secondary care including GP practices, emergency departments and in the community.
The report highlights how HCAs are being treated as “glorified skivvies” and often left unsupervised to plug gaps in NHS care because of nursing shortages.
Yet more than two thirds (68%) say they are not given sufficient access to training and development.
Stephanie Aiken, deputy director of nursing for the Royal College of Nursing said: “There is a workforce crisis because of previous short term decisions to reduce training places – but the NHS can’t keep borrowing against its own future to fill gaps in care.
“Trusts are resorting to desperate measures to fill the gaps, with recruitment overseas and an over-reliance on temporary staff. Relying on support workers to cover for a shortage of registered nurses is equally short-sighted, and could put patients at risk.
“Many healthcare support workers are highly skilled, and the NHS could not function for a single day without them. But many are paying the price of the nursing shortage, and being pushed into taking on roles and responsibilities without the necessary training or support. Nobody wins from this – not the nurses, not the healthcare support workers, and definitely not the patients.
“Only a long term workforce plan which provides training, support and development to staff at all levels, and ensures that above all the right staff with the right skills are in the right place at the right time will solve this problem.”
Unison also criticised the Government for creating a new nursing associate role rather than investing in the whole HCA workforce.
Sara Gorton, Unison deputy head of health, said healthcare assistants are undervalued and over worked, adding that many could “earn more stacking supermarket shelves than they can looking after patients. It’s nursing on the cheap and patients ultimately suffer as a result.”
She said: “Their responsibilities have increased massively – from feeding patients to now carrying out skilled medical procedures.
“They are essentially doing jobs previously done by nurses yet this is neither reflected in their pay nor in their career opportunities, so they’re struggling to make ends meet.”