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MAR 25/2014

How new safe medical staffing laws can improve NHS care

New jobs for doctors, nurses, midwives and other medical professionals could soon be created by the NHS following the introduction of important new safe staffing laws that aim to improve the quality and reliability of care offered at UK hospitals.

Announced in November 2013 as part of the government's response to the Francis inquiry report, the new legislation will come into effect within the next few months and will require many of Britain's healthcare facilities to hire more workers.

The aim of the laws will be to guarantee patient safety and bring greater transparency to NHS management practices. Their introduction could potentially be a highly significant moment that paves the way for further legislative changes in future.

The details of the new laws
Designed to prevent a repeat of the care failings seen at the Mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, the legal change will see all hospitals become legally required to publish nurse staffing levels on a ward-by-ward basis from April 2014 onwards, together with a breakdown of the percentage of shifts meeting safe staffing guidelines.

This mandatory process will be done on a monthly basis, based on models that are currently being developed by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Boards will review the evidence for their staffing numbers in public at least once every six months, while all relevant safety data will be published on a new national safety website to ensure patients are kept informed of how their local hospitals are performing.

NICE is currently considering the available evidence on nursing activities at ward level as it seeks to produce guidance on safe, efficient staffing levels. It is initially focusing on adult wards in acute inpatient settings, with this guidance to be published in July 2014.

Further safe staffing guides will then be released in August 2014 for A&E units, maternity units, acute inpatient paediatric and neonatal wards, mental health/learning disability services for inpatient and community settings, and community nursing care teams.

Potential further developments
These new laws will help to ensure there are always enough nurses available to attend to patients' needs. However, ministers believe the NHS would benefit if these reforms could be extended further.

Earlier this month, BBC News reported on a Health Select Committee meeting during which the cross-party group of MPs called for the safe staffing laws to be extended across the NHS and social care systems.

Committee chairman Stephen Dorrell said: "This should be applied across the delivery of health and care - doctors, midwives, practice nurses and social workers."

Should the government follow this advice, it could be an important move in addressing the current shortfall of skills seen in certain parts of the NHS - for example, data from the College of Emergency Medicine show that there are shortages among trainees, middle-grade doctors and consultants at the moment.

Hospitals have already confirmed plans to hire more than 3,700 extra nurses over the coming months, spurred by the Francis inquiry report and government action to date - meaning further legislative reform could help to bolster recruitment rates across all NHS disciplines. 

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