By now many nurses will be feeling a mixture of despair and insult they have received following the many reports into poor quality care. These feelings can lead to disenchantment, disengagement and disillusionment with both politics and health care delivery. Jane Salvage (1985) suggested that nurses ‘wake up and get out from under’ and while recognising that for some this past entreaty to engage politically may further entrench those feelings, the need for nurses and nursing to do so has not diminished. As Stuckler and Basu (2010) argue, government policy becomes a matter of life and death as ‘Austerity is killing people’. Nurses are part of the front line in promoting health and caring for those who are ill or living with chronic conditions. Their work is therefore framed by politics and political decisions. The bottom line is that there is a ‘bottom line’ to care, societies prioritise resources depending on their values, however there is not a level playing field in this regard. Care is under resourced, undervalued and often invisible. As millions of people in the UK, and billions across the globe, experience a daily struggle to both give and receive care Nursing must ally itself with the progressive forces which seek to redress the balance forces of power which currently results in gross inequalities in health and poorly funded care provision. In this article I wish to remove the ‘flowers from the chains’ so that we more clearly see what holds us back from progress in care giving.
The Politics of care
This summary of a recent article by Curtis (2013) is worth reading as it sets up what some are experiencing as they struggle to reconcile care and the cultures that surround it:
“Nursing faculty are facing challenges in facilitating student learning of complex concepts such as compassionate practice. There is currently an international concern that student nurses are not being adequately prepared for compassion to flourish and for compassionate practice to be sustained upon professional qualification…..nurse teachers recognise the importance of the professional ideal of compassionate practice alongside specific challenges this expectation presents. They have concerns about how the economically constrained and target driven (my emphasis) practice reality faced by RNs promotes compassionate practice, and that students are left feeling vulnerable to dissonance between learned professional ideals and the RNs’ practice reality they witness”.
A key point made in the article is that of the requirement for strong nurse leadership in clinical practice to deal with those factors that make care and compassion difficult to practice fully. That being said, no amount of good leadership will address the basic problem of the cost of caring: ‘who pays?’ Poor quality care is the fault of the person giving it, personal accountability for neglect and abuse cannot be sidestepped. However, we need to bring our sociological imaginations to bear so that we can more fully understand the antecedents to abusive institutional care. These include poorly funded care provision for a low status Cinderella service.
Too much of the discussion of the failings in care do not take into account the political economy of care in societies and the historical antecedents that have brought us to where we are. Instead, we get discussions around changing ‘cultures’. Reconciling professional ideals to actual practice is very difficult given the organisational cultures many nurses work in, and the almost grudging support given to nurses by the political system set up by what Graham Scambler (2012) calls the Corporate Class Executive (CCE) and the Political Power Elite (PPE). The bottom line, and that is a phrase the CCE recognise, is that care costs money. One of the critiques of the Mid Staffs tragedy was that corporate self-interest was put ahead of patients’ safety (Francis (2013).
There have been many reports regarding the health and social care of elderly people and it seems to be that their needs are outstripping both private and public provision for them. J K Galbraith coined the phrase ‘private affluence-public squalor’ to describe the mismatch between what is resourced in the private sector and the public:
“There’s no question that in my lifetime, the contrast between what I called private affluence and public squalor has become very much greater. What do we worry about? We worry about our schools. We worry about our public recreational facilities. We worry about our law enforcement and our public housing. All of the things that bear upon our standard of living are in the public sector. We don’t worry about the supply of automobiles. We don’t even worry about the supply of foods. Things that come from the private sector are in abundant supply; things that depend on the public sector are widely a problem. We’re a world, as I said in The Affluent Society, of filthy streets and clean houses, poor schools and expensive television. I consider that contrast to be one of my most successful arguments”. (interviewed in 2000).
Galbraith first wrote about this process in 1958.
As governments embrace austerity policies, this tendency for capitalism to funnel resources, research and development into goods and services that make a return while ignoring public provision for those things that do not have immediate impacts on improving shareholder value or the price of stocks, increases. Care is seen as a cost and not a benefit to those who decide where the investments should be made. Private care companies will provide care with an eye to the balance sheet. This results in hiring under educated and poorly trained staff who too often lack supervision and development in high patient to staff ratios (Salvage 2012). The NHS is no different, but is also now handicapped by various factors making its provision seemingly expensive for society. While the current (2013) Chancellor states that NHS spending will be ringfenced, the true position is that care straddles both health and social care sector provision and is thus characterised by means testing. It is accepted fact that our population is ageing with forecast increases in dementia and diabetes, health and social care services will experience increased pressures as demands and frailties rise. The argument is about who is going to pay for the provision of care?
Frail elderly people need a lot of care and that care is expensive. Let us not forget our history – why the NHS was set up (Abel Smith 2007), who struggled to get it in into place and why, and the functions women especially played in the private sphere (Elshtain 1981) of care both for children and the elderly. Modern Industrial society was both capitalist and patriarchal with care firmly in the private domain. No state funding as we would recognise it was provided because this was expensive. Patriarchal attitudes would not define it as ‘proper’ work and so could be left to women. The Parish, Poor laws and workhouses were the backstop for those unable to fend for themselves, for those without the family, and that often meant women, looking after them. The working class had to struggle to get health and education properly funded. Enlightened Victorian philanthropists and entrepreneurs realised that if they wanted workers to keep working then recreation and education had to be provided. This provision was despite the capitalist dynamic for profit, not because of it.
We have come a long way as social democratic pressures finally provided the NHS and Education, as the elites also were won over to the need to provide care. The ‘One nation’ Tories at least understood that a prosperous society had to take care of all of its members, of course there was some self interest in this – we needed soldiers who were fit for the battlefield, and we needed healthy workers for the factories. This is a simplistic history as it is more nuanced than this. However, over the last 30 years or so we have seen reversal of this enlightened social democratic outlook on care and public health and care. The need for care is increasing but this is occurring just when the elites are pulling back from their responsibilities. They look at what state provision will cost for high quality elder care and are frightened. They also have a visceral loathing of state provision…because it costs them money through taxes they do not want to pay. They say it is because the state is inefficient and anti-democratic, that state provision is the road to serfdom. Suffice to say that the current involvement of the CCE with the PPE is extremely antidemocratic but their right wing press cheerleaders have not spotted it or prefer to ignore it. Seamus Milne has eloquently exposed how corporate power is corrupting politics.
The neoliberal capitalist agenda (Crouch 2011) requires the state to pull back from earlier involvement on education and health. The CCE and the current PPE have swallowed an ideology that simply accepts private provision = good, public provision = bad. This is why we are seeing the conditions of an affluent society being characterised by a hugely increasing wealth gap. This agenda also allies itself with patriarchal views on the proper role for women – get back in the kitchen girls and look after the kids…and now, of course, Gran as well.
Austerity is now the smokescreen for dismantling of the state provision for care. Does this mean that lack of compassion is directly related to neoliberal policies? To accept that is to think in an overly simplistic cause effect relationship. Societies are more complex than that. Of course poor quality care pre dates capitalism and the NHS, however capitalism (and its often hidden twin patriarchy) sets the agenda and the organisational forms and institutional arrangements in which care takes place. This now means as budgets get cut and savings asked for, nurses will be asked to provide more for less. This has been always the case; nursing work as womens’ work (Hagell 1989) has largely been invisible emotional labour (Smith) which has been poorly paid and supported, instead their rewards have been patronising labels such as ‘Angels’. Nurses know what they need to provide care and they can do it if given supportive organisational cultures and the power to actually direct, organise and manage care properly.
As Roy Lilley argued on nhs.managers.net:
(The Francis report 2013) talks about ‘culture change’. Effectively making the people we have make the services we’ve got, work better. On that basis Francis fails. What we’ve got doesn’t work. Never will. Think about it; nearly all the quality problems the NHS faces are around the care of the frail elderly. Why? Because the NHS was never set up to deal with the numbers of porcelain-boned, tissue paper skinned elderly it is trying to cope with. The NHS’ customer-base has changed but the organisations serving them have stood still.
“Fund the front-line fully, protect it fiercely, make it fun to work there, that way you’ll make Francis history.”
And there you have it. Do the austerity addicts think it is the proper role of the state to fund the front line. No, they hanker after a US style private provision with the family, the big society volunteers and women to take up the slack. That will not wash in a hospital ward or a care home full with frail elderly patients.
Nurse educators and their students do not work in a socio-political vacuum. However, one would think that they do if the content of curricula and the learning experiences planned are anything to go by. Indeed any discussion around political economy, patriarchy and capitalism is liable to be met with surprise, apathy, disdain apart from those engaged in teaching the social sciences in nursing. I would argue that nursing cannot shy away from addressing these questions. Nurses as women, who experience the requirements to care in both their domestic and public lives, bear the brunt of the demands of a society which needs that care to be done but is unwilling to fully fund it. It might be fair to suggest that since about the 1980’s both feminism and social democratic politics took their eyes off the ball or felt that because progress had been made the struggle was nearly over. It is not. We need to argue for the social value of care and against privatised individualised provision which falls unfairly on the shoulders of those who often do not have the resources to provide it.
Caring is not sexy – it is not fancy infrastructure projects, it does not make millions at the click of a mouse; hedge funds and private equity firms don’t crack champagne bottles over the needs of the frail elderly. Care is unglamorous emotional labour, involves often dirty body work, offering little in the way of recognition and prizes – there are no Golden Globes, Oscars or Baftas. There is no end point, no project that is completed and shown off, no bonuses to be earned. ‘Top’ Universities show off their ‘top’ professions: law, medicine, business and science whose courses are oversubscribed due to professional closure and the high salaries they attract. The children of the elite are groomed and public schooled to ensure they attend the ‘right University’ and study the ‘right’ subject while eschewing nursing, which struggles to gain academic credibility and value among society and Russell group elites, while its core concept is seen to require no education at all.
Nurses are in a political struggle whether they realise it or not. For the sake of all us who will require care, don’t let the greedy bastards grind us down
Abel Smith, B. (1992) The Beveridge Report: its origins and outcomes. International Social Security Review 45 (1-2) pp5-16
Curtis, K. (2013) 21st Century challenges faced by nursing faculty in educating for compassionate practice: Embodied interpretation of phenomenological data. Nurse Education Today, http://www.nurseeducationtoday.com/article/S0260-6917%2813%2900170-6/abstract
Elshtain, J. (1981) Public Man, Private Woman: Women in Social and Political Thought. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press
Scambler, G. (2012) Elements towards a Sociology of the Present. December 6th http://grahamscambler.wordpress.com/2012/12/06/elements-towards-a-sociology-of-the-present/