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Interview: New kid on the block 'empathises' with nursing workforce

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Dr Poulter Dr Poulter cites the call to action as his greatest achievement

Dr Dan Poulter, health minister, is in a unique position. As a practising doctor with a background in A&E and maternity services, he should be able to put himself in the position of those that he is making policies for.

'Having cared for patients myself and knowing what it means to care for people is something I have found hugely motivating for me as an MP and as minister and that is invaluable.' This is something that sets Dr Poulter apart from his health minister peers.

He says that his experience of working in healthcare helps him empathise with the nursing workforce. His experience of working in maternity services led him to support the Health Visitor Implementation Plan when he became health minister in 2012. He has called this the 'most rapid and successful expansion in NHS history' and latest figures show that the target of 4200 extra health visitors is likely to be met by April 2015. Latest figures, based on NHS England management information of health visitor full-time equivalents, show that as of February there are 3,890 more health visitors than in 2010, and 178 are due to complete training by the end of March 2015. There are 900 students in the final supervised practice element of their training.

The Health Visitor Implementation Plan was set up in 2010 to increase the number of health visitors from 8,000 to over 12,000.

Dr Poulter says that revitalising the health visitor workforce is one of his proudest achievements as health minister. 'I have taken particular pride in helping to deliver this because, as someone who still works as a doctor in NHS maternity services, I know how important it is that new families and babies get the care and support to give them best start in life,' he says.

Dr Poulter trained as a medical doctor at King's College London, after completing a law degree at the University of Bristol. After qualifying, he worked as a junior doctor in obstetrics and gynaecology. He has been a politician for a relatively short time in comparison to his counterparts in Labour and the Lib Dems, having been elected as an MP for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich in 2010. He became parliamentary undersecretary of state in the DH in September 2012.

His responsibilities include maternity services, health education and training, children's health, and the NHS workforce. More importantly he is the minister for nursing and midwifery.

'We have prioritised and invested in frontline nursing staff. This has resulted in 8,400 more nurses on our wards,' he says.

Initiatives in the Five Year Forward View rely heavily on community nurses but how they can be implemented when only a fifth of all NHS nurses are working in the community? 'I think we need to be a bit careful about how we analyse that statistic,' he says. 'We know that some specialist nurses such an MS nurse or a diabetes nurses may be counted as hospital nurses but they may well work across hospital and the community, supporting more people with complex needs or long-term conditions.' He states that there has been an increase in specialist nurses and that they provide vital one-to-one support.

He also references HEE's work on the future of the primary care workforce, being reviewed by Professor Martin Roland as part of the Primary Care Workforce Commission. 'This will be an independent review looking at what the future needs will be for the primary care workforce and to make sure that we invest in additional numbers in primary and community care, in particular nurses to better support people with complex care needs and long-term conditions like heart disease or dementia.'

At the RCN's political hustings on 23 March, he was asked how he would guarantee the community nursing workforce was valued. Dr Poulter replied that the current payment system was 'disadvantageous' for community nurses and would need to be looked at.

Looking to the future of nursing Dr Poulter says that the biggest challenge for healthcare is the increasing number of people with three or more long-term conditions. 'This means we are going to need to provide more care in the community, more care in peoples homes.

'We have to invest in the right workforce to do that and part of that is to make sure that all nurses have recognised compulsory training in the community as part of their courses. This is something the RCN and the NMC supports and that universities are looking into and mandating as part of nursing training for the future.'

'As a party we are committed to the NHS and an NHS free at the point of delivery. We are committed to making sure nurses and the nursing profession is supported in delivering the right care for patients in the months and years ahead,' he concludes.

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