What’s it like to be a future NHS nurse?

In September, a new horde of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed first-year students entered their university halls, excited about their fresh futures away from home. I remember it well: a cocktail of excitement and anxiety drowned in a fortnight of cheap vodka. But, when the hangovers wear off and lectures begin, many look forward the foundations of their careers.

Amongst the masses of students that may ceremoniously attend the odd 3 p.m. lecture are those that genuinely have to work hard whilst in higher education. The doctors, vets and nurses are the special breed that essentially begin their working life early, with eye-wateringly long days of lectures and mercilessly difficult placements.

Junior doctors took to the streets in protest of proposed changes in their contracts.

Of those that choose this path, the student nurses have the toughest time ahead; a median salary that is lower than the UK national average, and variable working hours make a challenging job even more demanding. On top of this, trainee NHS staff have seen their futures plunged into turmoil by Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, over their contracts. Mr Hunt’s new plans will see the working hours of junior doctors reshaped, which has been badly received by many across the UK. And for those soon-to-be nurses, these changes may seriously threaten their imminent careers.

So, I decided I would speak to one of the budding bunch to find out what it’s like to be the future of the NHS. Lisa, who is currently studying to be a nurse at the University of Plymouth, agreed to talk to me about her future career.

Why become a nurse?

The most common question Lisa receives when she tells people she’s training to become a nurse is: why did you want to be a nurse? “I knew I didn’t want to sit at a desk or do a normal job,” she says. And nursing is certainly not that. After working during her gap year at a local hospital as a general health care assistant, Lisa knew that a career in nursing was for her. “I really enjoyed it. Working with the doctors and other nurses was great, but I felt as if I was at the bottom of the pile”, which is what led her to take the route through university. By earning a degree, Lisa is able to earn over £7000 more a year than if she had remained as a care assistant.

What’s the training like?

Unlike the masses of students that spend most of their waking hours watching Netflix and trying to work out how long they can wait until starting their next assignment, student nurses actually work hard. Over the three-year course, students have their time split equally between lectures and eight work-based placements — two in their first year, then three in their second and third. These placements see students work at different locations in varying roles, from A+E to end of life care. “I have done all sorts of stuff, from babies to the elderly. Right now I am working in the Medical Assessment Unit, which has definitely been my favourite so far.” It means that those studying nursing get an excellent taster of what it’s like once they are qualified.

Lisa goes on to tell me that the 38 unpaid hours a week and the night shifts sound particularly daunting, but in reality, the early start to working life is actually very gratifying. “It’s really not as bad as it sounds. As long as you keep on top of things, you can still do all the normal student things, like going out every weekend.” The overall training process allows students to gain valuable experience in arguably one of the toughest working environments in the UK.

How do you feel about the future of nursing in Britain?

As Jeremy Hunt battles it out with the junior doctors, nurses across the country are on tenterhooks over their future in the NHS. Part of the dispute that currently engulfs the Health Secretary is in regards to timetabling and what constitutes “normal working hours”. I asked Lisa how she felt about the changes, and whether she was nervous about her future under the current political climate. “I am not too worried about my own future, but I know that many people are unhappy.” She adds, “the biggest problem I have faced is agency nurses, who can be very dangerous when they are not familiar with patients and their conditions.” In regards to this issue, agency nurses have been used exponentially in recent times to fill the employment gap in the NHS. And as Lisa states from her experiences, insufficient knowledge of a patient’s personal situation may cause complications. In addition, the NHS is reportedly spending £450million per year on agency staff — a cost that could be drastically cut if enough regular staff were sourced.

Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, is becoming increasing unpopular amongst NHS staff.

What is your view on private healthcare?

Another hot topic that currently causes concern across Britain is the threat of privatisation to the NHS. From a taxpayer’s perspective, this wholly seems like a bad direction for our beloved healthcare service to head, however, the story is slightly different for the staff. Compared to the NHS, working in the private sector can be a lot more prosperous for doctors and nurses, with a higher average salary available. Lisa commented on her experience working in a private hospital; she reveals that some of the patients she treated were paid for by the NHS, outsourced to ease the workload. “One of my placements was for a private hospital and the care facilities were great. Most of the patients were low-risk procedures such as hip replacements.” “I know working privately opens up the opportunity to earn more” she adds. Unlike the strict budget of many NHS hospitals, private establishments often provide a higher standard of care. And whether or not you view privatisation as a bad thing, there is no denying it offers frontline staff an alternative option away from the public sector.

What would you say to anyone considering a career in nursing?

“Do it!” Lisa says. “It’s a really enjoyable job, and I am very excited about starting my career.” And so she should be. Unlike many graduates, nurses are almost guaranteed a job as soon as they leave university. Despite the unsettled financial status of the NHS, and the battle junior doctors are currently fighting, the country still needs men and women, like Lisa, to join the frontline of medical care. Without them, we would not have a National Health Service.

So, there you have it: an insight into the life of a trainee nurse. Lisa is one of many students up and down the country that will soon be gracing the wards of our hospitals, fixing us up and getting us back on our way. Although, I hope you won’t be seeing them anytime soon, except maybe on a Saturday night in the student union!

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