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Nurse leadership: One-to-one with Jane Cummings

Nursing in Practice’s sister publication, Healthcare Leader, spoke to former chief nursing officer Jane Cummings about her new role in leadership, stabilising the nursing workforce and why nurses make fantastic leaders

Nursing in Practice’s sister publication, Healthcare Leader, spoke to former chief nursing officer Jane Cummings about her new role in leadership, stabilising the nursing workforce and why nurses make fantastic leaders.

After 40 years of NHS service, seven of which as chief nursing officer (CNO), Jane Cummings decided she wanted to continue to support the nursing profession – albeit in a different way.

Ms Cummings – who was awarded a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for services to nursing and the NHS in the 2019 New Year’s Honours List – remained in her CNO role until the beginning of January. Her next step was to join the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) Foundation, an independent charity that supports every member of the nursing team, in May.

Having spent years advocating for workforce to become a priority for the NHS, she tells Healthcare Leader that she feels ‘pleased’ that by the time she hung up her NHS badge, its leaders had made a clear commitment to workforce as part of the NHS interim people plan.

Her lofty ambition as chair of the RCN Foundation is to make the organisation ‘an incredibly well-known nursing charity’. For someone who introduced the six values for compassionate care in nursing – known as the six Cs – that are now familiar to every nurse, this sounds like an achievable goal.

‘It’s a really exciting time, we’ve got a lot of opportunity to do some really good work as a charity,’ says Ms Cummings. ‘People still don’t understand or recognise that the RCN Foundation is for nurses, midwives, and healthcare support staff. You don’t have to be a member of the RCN to benefit.’

‘We are there to support the health and wellbeing of the public, to really promote the profession, which is something that I feel really passionate about,’ Ms Cummings says.

Changing views on nursing

Ms Cummings’ zeal for raising the profile of nursing was particularly clear in her last year as CNO, when she supervised the launch of one of the biggest NHS recruitment campaigns.

To coincide with the NHS’s 70th birthday, NHS England launched a TV campaign to encourage people from all generations to consider a career in nursing and midwifery.

‘The other thing that we started to do a lot of work on [is what] I called “transforming the perceptions of nursing and midwifery,”’ she says.

‘We wanted to make [nursing] a career of choice. Before I left as CNO, we had something like 2,200 ambassadors, nurses or midwives all over the country promoting their role, talking about what they did, taking pride in their profession, and that started to get people to think differently.’

However, Ms Cummings says the NHS’s focus should not only be on recruiting more nurses, but also on retaining existing ones.

Since 2014, Health Education England has been running a return-to-practice scheme that has helped qualified nurses find their way back to the NHS. And Ms Cummings thinks the NHS’s partnering with Mumsnet, a website for parents, is a new ‘innovative’ way to attract nurses back to the NHS.

Increasing the nurse workforce

Sadly, there are now over 40,000 nursing vacancies in the NHS. This is despite some efforts that have been made to equip the NHS with the staff it needs to run a safe service, and the most recent pledge in the interim NHS people plan to recruit 40,000 nurses by 2024.

‘It’s difficult to comment on the way those numbers were determined in the interim people plan, but I think if there is an ability to increase the number of nurses by 40,000, that’s a very big ask and it will be quite hard to do,’ Ms Cummings says.

‘But if we can get that, that’s a very positive contribution. It will build on all the work that people have been doing over the last few years.’

In her seven years as CNO, Ms Cummings focused her efforts on increasing workforce.

‘There is no quick fix,’ she says. ‘We had some impact, because we ended up with more nurses than we’ve ever had by the time I finished. It’s just that we haven’t got enough. It’s not like they’re going down, they’re going up – it’s just that they’re not going up as quickly as the demand.’

The interim people plan recognises that ‘the most urgent challenge is the current shortage of nurses’, outlining what immediate action needs to be taken to address this. This includes increasing the supply of nurses through undergraduate courses, improving retention rates and encouraging nurses who left the NHS to return to practice.

‘It’s not a single action that will make a difference. It’s about a combination of things. Building the supply check line and looking at ways of increasing undergraduates or postgraduate pre-registration programmes has got to be one of the fundamental planks of building the numbers,’ Ms Cummings says.

New role in nurse leadership

In her role at the RCN Foundation, Ms Cummings will indirectly give her contribution to the NHS interim people plan by supporting nurses with a series of actions.

‘We have a role to play along with the other charities around raising the profile of nursing as we head into 2020, which is the international year of the nurse and midwife,’ she explains.

‘We’ve awarded over a million pounds in the last five years in education grants and we’ve supported 2,000 nurses, midwives, and healthcare assistants directly in 2018. We gave nearly £300,000 worth of grants last year.’

Ms Cummings is still committed to supporting nurses working in any health and social care setting, a dedication she already showed when, as CNO, she released the Ten Point Action Plan for General Practice Nursing.

The document included a series of actions that can be taken to support and strengthen the general practice nursing workforce, including ensuring that nurses are given opportunities for leadership development.

‘Practice nurses are often employed by GPs, and you can find a great difference between what they are paid and how much leave they have, and how much support they get to be able to go and do further development,’ Ms Cummings says.

But, she believes, it is important that nurses are given opportunities to develop because ‘nurses can be the best leaders’.

‘Nurses do make very good leaders – they are leading from very early in their careers. They have to lead teams, they lead wards, they lead systems, they lead patient care or population health from quite early on. They’re great leaders.

‘However, some of the best leaders I know are not clinicians. I think it’s quite dangerous to say a leader has to be a doctor or a nurse. It has to be somebody that’s done some management training.

‘On the other hand, there are nurses that are fantastic leaders. It’s about having the right individual, and if they happen to be a nurse, that’s an added bonus, in my position.’