Jane Cummings: "Yes, nursing is challenging. But it’s such a privilege to see the impact that you can have"

Posted On: 
1st February 2018

Next month more than 500 senior nurses and midwives will come together to discuss solutions to the major issues facing the profession, in the UK and overseas. Ahead of the summit Jane Cummings, the Chief Nursing Officer, speaks to Sebastian Whale about staff retention, training and the challenges of Brexit

Chief Nursing Officer Jane Cummings
PA Images

Professor Jane Cummings is determined to tackle existing “myths and stereotypes” of what it is to be a nurse or midwife. The Chief Nursing Officer for England cites this crusade as one of the things she feels most passionate about.

“Many people will say it’s still a vocation, but it’s not about handholding or being a doctor’s handmaiden or just being compassionate. Compassion is a really key part of being a nurse, but it’s also a really key part of being any healthcare professional and we should recognise that,” she says.

“It’s the skill and the expert knowledge that nurses and midwives have got that actually enables patients to live better lives and to support them when they are most vulnerable, but people don’t often talk or write about that.”

Taking on misconceptions of nursing or midwifery could help in the bid to encourage more people to take up the professions. And the timing couldn’t be more apt. Figures released in January showed that more than 33,000 nurses left last year while 30,000 joined the health service.

Cummings, who is also a national executive director at NHS England and the Regional Director for London is preparing to host the annual Chief Nursing Officer for England’s summit, due to take place over 7 and 8 of March at the ACC Liverpool. The event marks a rare opportunity to bring the most senior nursing, midwifery and care leaders into one room to hear from an eclectic mix of international speakers and leading domestic figures alike.

“What we’ve discovered over the last few years is when you bring people together, they’ve got a real ability to adapt, to innovate and to lead. The opportunity for that to be showcased to their colleagues and to take some valuable time to think and plan is really important,” she explains.

“My CNO Summit brings more than 500 of the most senior nurses and midwives in England together to discuss some of the issues that we’re all facing, but also to shape the future and their contribution to making the NHS and care system the best it can be.”

This year’s summit will focus on three themes, beginning with global nursing and the impact the professions have on international health and economic growth. Health services across borders face shared challenges of tightening budgets, recruitment issues and an ageing population. At last year’s summit, Cummings focused on the need to prioritise prevention, health improvement and self-care to cope with people living longer.

“We know that some of the pressures that we’re facing in England are also pressures that are faced internationally. There are different ways of dealing with them and different approaches that people are able to come and talk about. That’s been really helpful in the past and I’m anticipating that people will find it as useful this time,” Cummings says.

The summit will also be graced by some big names. Elizabeth Iro, the first ever Chief Nursing Officer for the World Health Organisation and Annette Kennedy, the president of the International Council of Nurses, are both due to give speeches. “Having people like that of international strategic importance coming to speak at the summit will, I think be really powerful,” says Cummings.

Also due to speak is Baroness Watkins of Tavistock; Visiting Professor at King’s College London, who will refer to the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Global Health report produced in 2016 which highlighted that developing nursing will improve health, promote gender equality and support economic growth. Baroness Watkins has been working with Cummings and the three CNOs from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland on how to improve UK strategic approaches to Nursing Globally. At the conference, Baroness Watkins will speak about ‘Nursing Now!’, a global campaign of which she is a board member that evolved from the APPG report.

“Jane is committed to leading Nursing in England so that we play our part in helping to meet the WHO strategic goals in health by 2030 through the provision of an increased properly trained nursing workforce. Together she and I try to promote nursing at the highest level internationally,” says Baroness Watkins.

Cummings adds: “We’ve been working with Baroness Watkins and Lord Crisp really closely on the global nursing programme. Elizabeth, Annette and Mary are going to talk about global nursing and midwifery and its impact. I think that will be a really important keynote.”

To showcase the disparate work of nursing, fringe events include a session on global volunteering and some of England’s nurses and midwives support Ugandan colleagues to develop their leadership, while independent anti-slavery commissioner Kevin Hyland will discuss the UK’s involvement in combatting the scourge of modern slavery. “It’s a really powerful and important subject and I would expect it to get a lot of attention,” Cummings says.

The other two themes of the CNO summit relate to designing and creating a workforce fit for the health and care system of the future, and the importance of individual and collective leadership in changing times. On staffing, Cummings talks about a number of challenges in seeking to halt the current exodus from the profession. “One is around how do we make sure we’ve got as many of the right staff now and how do we keep the staff we’ve got so that they are able to continue to deliver expert care, support and treatment – it may mean working in more flexible ways – but also how do we attract people so that they come into nursing and want to stay in it,” she says.

Cummings concedes that retention of nurses is a “major challenge”. Retention figures can vary significantly between NHS Providers, and Cummings wants to ensure knowledge is shared across the health service so that those with higher levels of turnover can take onboard best practices. She also cites growth in the number of graduate nurses since 2012 but a rising demand from hospitals and communities due to population changes and patient need has resulted in demand for more nurses and midwives in the health and care service.

“That has led to a gap between what we want, what we need and what we have got. This is causing stress within the system and it means that nurses, midwives and care staff are working incredibly hard and in very pressurised environments,” Cummings continues.

This is all taking place in the wider political context of the UKs exit from the European Union (EU). EU nationals account for around 5% of the NHS workforce and 7% of nurses, though that figure rises in London and the South East. Cummings welcomes the Government’s assurance that EU nationals already working in the NHS will be able to stay post exit day.

“Of course, we want to keep those staff. They provide a valuable expert contribution to the care of patients. The other thing that is really important is that if you look at the population across England, we’ve got a fantastic diverse population with people from all different countries and cultures. There is really clear evidence that having a workforce that reflects that and supports the different needs of the population is a really positive thing to do.” she says.

“I’m very pleased that we’ve had agreement that those nurses or those staff from the European Union that are in the country will be able to stay. I think that’s really positive. But yes, we need to welcome that and reflect that this is something we’ve always done in the NHS. We’ve always had staff to come in to work from other countries and many British nurses and healthcare professionals go and work abroad too.”

We return to Cummings’ enthusiasm for cultivating the next generation of nurses and midwives. Her approach is three-pronged; educating children about life as a nurse and midwife from an early age, maintaining nurses’ and midwives’ passion for the role, and lastly, influencing key decision makers to ensure they “understand what nursing and midwifery is all about”.

“It is vital that people recognise the breadth of the professions and the enormous opportunities you can have as a nurse,” she says.

“Yes, it’s hard, it’s challenging and it’s difficult, but it’s such a privilege and so rewarding to see what impact you can have on the health and wellbeing of people, families and communities we care for and work with.”