Safety first: health care assistants should be regulated

Philip HuntLord Philip Hunt of Kings Health is a member of Labour’s health team and Shadow Deputy Leader in the House of Lords

Standards of nursing care are fundamental to the quality of the patient experience in the NHS. There have been huge advances in the nursing profession over the past 20 years and with the move to a graduate profession nurses have taken on much greater responsibility and developed more specialist skills. The public have welcomed this.

But at the same time there has been a mounting concern about basic standards of care and issues to do with hygiene, the feeding of patients, nutrition, dignity and even face-to face contact; issues which have sadly, too often made the headlines.

There is a real question about whether nurse training is too focused on academic performance rather than on practical nursing. This debate also has implications for the regulation of health care assistants.

Health care assistants are playing an increasingly important role in the NHS. But there is also a worry that they sometimes act beyond their competence, due to lack of supervision, putting  patients’ safety at risk.

There is a persuasive argument for statutory regulation to ensure proper training and standards. The public also needs protection so that if a health care assistant has been found to have severely transgressed, they can be struck off the register. Currently, a health care assistant can be dismissed for poor practise by an NHS hospital one day, and turn up and work at a private nursing home the next day.  That is unacceptable and safeguards have to be put in place.

The great majority of our 200,000 health care assistants do a fantastic job.  Statutory regulation would enhance their training and status as well as protecting the public interest.  And today, the final Report Day of the ill-fated Health and Social Care Bill, will see the Lords seek to regulate health care assistants.   We urge the Government to accept the substance of this sensible amendment straight away.

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