District nursing services are a lifeline for many people, providing vital care for patients in their homes. Interviews with patients and unpaid carers, conducted for this report, have highlighted the key role that these services play, and their value for many people living with complex health and care needs.
Although government policy is for more care to be delivered by these types of services, new research carried out for the report found district nursing at breaking point due to a profound and growing gap between capacity and demand.
Although limitations to national data make it difficult to establish a robust account of changes to activity and staffing, the report draws together a range of evidence to show:
- Activity has increased significantly in recent years both in terms of the number of patients seen and the complexity of the care provided.
- Available data indicates that the number of nurses working in community health services has declined over recent years, and the number working in senior ‘district nurse’ posts has fallen dramatically over a sustained period.
The report highlights that these pressures are compromising quality of care for some patients; the researchers found evidence of an increasingly task-focused approach to care, staff being rushed and abrupt with patients, reductions in preventive care, visits being postponed and lack of continuity of care.
Although some aspects of staff shortages are being managed well, services are generally over-stretched and heavily reliant on staff good-will. The researchers found that this is having a deeply negative impact on staff wellbeing, with unmanageable caseloads leading to fatigue, stress and in some cases ill health. They heard reports of staff being ‘broken’, ‘exhausted’ and ‘on their knees’, with some leaving the service as a result.
The report makes three key recommendations to address the problems in district nursing services:
- System leaders must recognise the vital strategic importance of community health services in realising ambitions for transforming and sustaining the health and social care system.
- There is an urgent need to create a sustainable district nursing workforce by reversing declining staff numbers, raising the profile of district nursing and developing it as an attractive career.
- Robust mechanisms for monitoring resources, activity and workforce must be developed alongside efforts to look in the round at the staffing and resourcing of community health and care services for the older population.
The report also found that staff, patients and carers have a strongly aligned view of what constitutes good quality care. It sets this out as a framework, which it argues should be developed for assessing and assuring the quality of care delivered in community settings.
Anna Charles, Policy Researcher at The King’s Fund said:
“At its best, district nursing offers an ideal model of person centred, preventive, community-based care. For years, health service leaders have talked about the importance of providing more care in the community, but this objective cannot be achieved when district nursing is at breaking point and a poverty of national data means the quality of services is not properly monitored.
“It is worrying that the people most likely to be affected by this are often vulnerable and also among those who are most likely to be affected by cuts in social care and voluntary sector services. It is even more troubling that this is happening ‘behind closed doors’ in people’s homes, creating a real danger that serious failures in care could go undetected because they are invisible.”