District nursing could be consigned to history if a ten-year decline in workforce numbers is not urgently addressed, the RCN has warned.
Referring to statistics published last month in the NHS census, which revealed a 36 per cent decrease in the number of qualified district nurses since 2001, RCN policy director Howard Catton said action needed to be taken to curtail the dramatic decline.
'If it continues without being addressed, it has the potential to wipe out the district nursing workforce in a decade,' he said.
'With the direction of health and social care policy centred on moving care closer to home and preventing emergency admissions, if this decline isn't halted or reversed, it could fatally harm the ambitions of the government.'
The census shows there was an 11 per cent drop in the number of nurses between 2010 and 2011 alone - the biggest annual fall in numbers in the last 10 years. It means there are now just 8,166 qualified district nurses in the NHS compared to more than 12,800 in 2002. This is despite the UK's ageing population and the increasingly complex care required by patients at home.
QNI director Rosemary Cook (pictured) said the figures were 'very worrying', but were supported by anecdotal evidence.
'It suggests nearly a thousand district nurses left the profession in the space of a single year, and it reflects what we've been hearing on the ground. Whole teams are retiring within a short period of time, with many opting for early retirement. They simply can't cope with the workload and the amount that they are expected to do with fewer staff.'
The fact that some district nurses are now employed outside the NHS may partially explain the decreasing numbers. Around 10 per cent of PCTs moved provider functions to social enterprises under the Transforming Community Services programme; staff in these organisations were not included in census figures.
Mr Catton concluded: 'The transfer of provider arms to social enterprises might mitigate some of the fall in numbers but also highlights the fact that it is getting more difficult to track the number of nurses and calculate what is happening.'