70 years ago, at the dawn of the NHS, nurses wore starched aprons and cotton caps. Today, the uniform has changed dramatically – as has the role itself.

Here, we take a look at just a few of the key ways in which the role of an NHS nurse has transformed since its inception.

Yes Matron

Back in the 1950s, nurses were always answerable to ward sisters and matrons; to a degree, they lived in fear of them. And this distinctly hierarchical structure meant that nursing wasn’t quite as respected as a profession as it is today.

Nurses were obedient and unquestioning and were hesitant to question authority or complain. In many cases, the nature of patient care on any given ward hinged upon the whims, opinions and sworn-by remedies of ward sisters. So being a nurse was as much about learning a sister’s preferences as it was about learning medicine.

Modern nurses have the kind of autonomy in their role that would have been unrecognisable in the 1950s. Nurses today are constantly making decisions – gathering data, making medical assessments and prescribing drugs. And this has changed the profile of nursing as a career. Nurses today are highly skilled and highly respected.

From generalist to specialist

70 years ago nurses handled a variety of tasks – the majority of which were palliative. Nurses were supporters of matrons, sisters, and ultimately, doctors. This kept their roles generalist in nature.

Today, nurses are specialists. Nurses have the freedom to focus on a wide range of specialisms, which has been fuelled partly by the speed at which our understanding of medical science has developed, and partly by growing patient demand. Over time, it wasn’t simply more nurses that the NHS required, but more specialised nurses.

It’s now incredibly rare to meet a nurse who doesn’t hold a degree, and it’s increasingly common for nurses to hold additional qualifications or to be delving into medical research themselves. It’s hardly surprising that nursing was once considered a job but is now seen as a career. Florence Nightingale may not have held any qualifications, but today’s nurses are both academically and practically equipped.

But being specialists has paid dividends in other ways too. Generalist nurses of the 1950s rarely felt justified in asking for more money. But from the 1970s onwards, nurses began to use their growing stature to argue for better pay – striking when necessary, and securing what they deserved.

More patients, less time

Nurses today treat many more patients than they used to – that’s a simple fact resulting from a growing population that’s living longer. But patients today also spend far less time in hospital. In the 1950s, a man with a hernia might spend three weeks in care. Today, he’d be in and out within 24 hours.

The effect on nursing as a profession has been dramatic. Nurses have less time to get to know patients, but spend far more time learning and managing a complex array of medical and professional knowledge.

But nurses today can’t be any less caring than their 1950s predecessors. They simply have to do it in far less time, building that vital, personal rapport with a huge number of patients while simultaneously managing their complex medical needs. Modern nurses really are the ultimate multi-taskers, changing from carer to doctor in the blink of an eye.

The world’s most diverse workforce

Male nurses at the onset of the NHS were virtually non-existent; today they make up over 11% of the workforce. But in terms of ethnicity, the changes are more nuanced.

Formed in 1948, the NHS had an immediate post-war demand for overseas nurses – many of whom came from the UK’s former colonies like India and the Caribbean.  Their influence on the NHS was profound, and that continues to this day in what is one of the world’s most diverse workforces.

But the proliferation of European nurses in the UK didn’t happen to a great extent until later in the 20th century. Nonetheless, the NHS quickly became indebted to these nurses, and continues to rely on recruiting them – a challenge made all the harder with the implementation of difficult IELTS testing and the immigration caps. Now, Brexit too is exacerbating this challenge. We’ve successfully campaigned for changes to IELTS, but the full effects of Brexit are yet to be fully understood.

And yet, nurses march on – as does the NHS they bravely carry.

The NHS at 70

There are few bigger workforces on the planet than the NHS, and in our opinion, there are none better. Modern-day nurses perform daily miracles that require a combination of tenderness, patience, skill, knowledge and strength-of-mind that is frankly astonishing. We salute every single one of you.

If you’re looking for a new nursing challenge, get in touch. We value your work – and find roles that truly match your passion.

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