When you go into any care setting, either as someone needing care or their family, you naturally expect that everyone who is looking after you or your loved one has been given all the skills that they need to provide that care safely, compassionately and confidently. What you might not realise is that aside from those people who you automatically recognise as being professionally trained and accredited (doctors, nurses, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, radiographers etc), those who assist them in providing care aren’t afforded the same professional status.
Although standards have been laid down by the Skills Councils for Health and Social Care, there is no robust system for ensuring that these are met, leaving the training and development of Healthcare Assistants (HCA’s) in hospitals and carers in social care settings (care homes, domiciliary care etc) very much open to interpretation and varying levels of implementation. In addition there is currently no defined path of career progression for those who seek it, and no professional body that offers registration for this huge number of care workers (unlike the RCN for Nurses or the BMA for doctors).
During my father’s time as a hospital inpatient, I would say that the majority of his care was provided by HCA’s. They were the ones charged with checking his vital signs, turning him to prevent pressure sores, changing his incontinence pads, and helping him to wash, eat and drink. Nurses were always on the ward, but clearly not enough of them for the number of high dependency patients, let alone with sufficient time to support their HCA colleagues.
Indeed, such were the tasks undertaken by HCA’s that many visiting relatives actually believed that they were part of the nursing staff. Yet HCA’s, despite the vital work that they do, clearly aren’t valued by our healthcare system. Without the professional standing of their nursing colleagues, HCA’s are effectively a cheap labour source for employers. Many are working on grossly over-stretched hospital wards leading to their duties creeping ever more into the realms of full-blown nursing. In monetary terms it costs far more to employ additional nurses than it does to ask HCA’s to complete some nursing tasks, but this is a dangerous game to play with patient’s health and wellbeing.
The situation is no better in social care, with carers in care homes and domiciliary care again providing vital support to often highly dependent vulnerable people under huge pressure, often inadequately trained or supervised and feeling very undervalued. Whilst some care providers constantly update and evaluate the skills of their workforce, others provide much less effective training for their staff, putting those who are receiving care at huge risk. Training doesn’t need to be complex, degree-style education (see this blog post), it just needs to be logical, natural and above all effective.
How this situation has gone on for so long is a mystery to me. We regulate health and social care services and demand high quality care, and yet that isn’t followed through with a framework that invests in and supports the very frontline staff who are charged with delivering this. I’m not suggesting that training and qualifications are the answer to all of our problems in care, far from it. On many occasions I had to educate both nurses and HCA’s on how to care for my father in aspects such as his swallowing problems, communication difficulties or behavioural issues. I do, however, feel that as patients and relatives we want to know that care provision is considered sufficiently important that it warrants a professional standing within our society, with the relevant standards and rewards in place, adhered to and monitored.
Currently, many HCA’s and carers working in social care earn less per hour than you might get as a cleaner or refuse collector. Whilst the latter two examples are important jobs, surely being in a position where you could potentially influence whether someone suffers pain, harm or ultimately lives or dies as a result of the care you provide is somewhat more important. I also believe that the role of HCA’s and carers in social care settings is one that their more qualified colleagues would also want to carry greater recognition and professional standing.
Nurses and doctors on busy hospital wards would be the first to admit that they would be lost without HCA’s. An effective care team cannot function without people who provide the basic care that is so vital to a patient’s recovery and comfort. Indeed, I would argue that the role of HCA’s goes beyond just providing care, but also moves into the realms of social interaction with patients, and provides vital opportunities to learn more about a patient or to spot changes that could indicate a problem or decline.
Looking at the role of HCA’s in that light, you suddenly realise just how important they are in a care team. So why don’t we train them to a higher, universal standard, give them professional recognition and pay them more money? The simple answer is because it’s cheaper not to. But does it represent good care, or indeed the model of care we want for ourselves or our loved ones? No.
In my opinion, for far too long those who provide frontline care have been marginalised, undervalued and seen as the workhorse of public and private sector health and social care. There has never been a more important time to change this situation if we are truly serious about delivering high quality care across all sectors. I believe most HCA’s and carers in social care would want this, their colleagues would support such a move, and most importantly of all patients and families would know that those looking after them at some of the most difficult and sensitive moments in their life are recognised and valued professionals within our society.
Until next time…