Ode from a student nurse: stand with our nurses and midwives

Ciarán Mac an tSaoir

Several strikes for nurses, midwives and other medical staff have been held so far in 2019.

The Irish public healthcare system has been in a crisis for quite some time now. The HSE has been chronically haemorrhaging newly graduated nurses to services abroad for years now, to the point that there are four nursing jobs available for every qualified nurse seeking work.

This had led to unacceptable staffing levels which is dangerous for those under the care of these services and has led to horrific working conditions for our nurses. It’s time we realise the impact that this has had on student nurses, both on our education and on the reality of our future within the Irish healthcare system. It’s time for people to realise that this affects every student in DCU. It’s time people learned how to do something about it and to stop leaving us behind.

DCU has been one of the education facilities at the forefront for bringing nurses to degree level for decades. Between General, Mental Health, Intellectual Disability, Children’s Nursing and a multitude of post-graduate opportunities for nurses, DCU can proudly lay claim to a large community of student nurses.

The Nursing & Midwifery Board of Ireland (NMBI) has very strict standards and, as a result, all who successfully graduate are entering a competitive international market which values qualified, English-speaking nurses. Ireland, despite educating some of the best nurses in the world, is failing to keep up with this market. As a result, we’re losing our nurses to other countries en masse.

We simply don’t have enough nurses in Ireland and this has created an unsafe environment for everybody, including students. This environment is not safe for learning and has been putting both the physical and mental health of our student nurses at risk for years now.

The recent and ongoing action being undertaken by our nursing unions, namely the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) and the Psychiatric Nurses Association (PNA), has aimed to improve these conditions. The root of this issue is nurses are paid around €7,000 less than other degree level healthcare professionals, according to the General Secretary of the INMO.

This pay is particularly poor for our brand new, fresh-out-of-the-oven college graduates, who simply cannot afford to stay in Ireland. Now, imagine that you’ve studied for four to four-and-a-half years (depending on if you’ve studied Children’s and General Nursing) to enter a profession where you regularly work 12-hour shifts. Then you work seven consecutive 12-hour night shifts in a row, while also working on holidays, such as Christmas, and then throw in extremely unequal pay. Would you stick about?

Our nurses are leaving because they have fair pay and better working conditions abroad, which we need to provide in Ireland to have a chance of retaining them. The government has to provide us with a reason to stay.

The effect that these conditions has had on us student nurses here in Ireland cannot be understated. For student nurses in Ireland to register as a nurse in their discipline, we must undertake a minimum of 2,300 hours of unpaid placement during our course.

Every single minute of those 2,300 hours, student nurses are being assessed on their competency in practice. In theory, this makes sense. However, we’re allowing student nurses, such as myself, to be put into areas where the staffing levels are insufficient for proper assessment.

Our nurses, for example, are being assessed on their time management in wards that, ideally, would have a 1:4 or 1:8 nurse-patient ratio. However, they’re realistically being assessed on these domains in wards that regularly have levels of one nurse to every 13 patients. This is not safe for patients and it is most certainly not safe for us student nurses.

We want to learn how to care for our service users, but the reality of Ireland’s health service is that we’re not learning in ideal environments. Is today going to be the day you slip up by spending a few minutes talking to a service user instead of observing their condition and simply moving on? Will my preceptor finally get the time to sit down with me and help guide my learning?

It is stressful enough as is. But should you fail to meet one tiny subsection of the six domains of assessment during your placement, you’ll have to repeat the entire block of placement. Two weeks of placement? Four weeks? Doesn’t matter. Repeat it.

Student nurses attend placement for 39 hours per week and 100 per cent attendance is mandatory. That is a full week’s work and is non-inclusive of time spent on academic assignments, part-time work, parenting children, or any other of life’s activities.

All of this, regardless of what else is going on in our lives, has its impact on our mental and our physical health. It’s accepted as normal when we say that we sleep for an average of four-and-a-half hours per night and we don’t bat an eyelid when we come home on the verge of tears (and quite often beyond the verge).

I, personally, cannot think of a course in DCU that puts its students through such a strong test of emotional character and I would like to be able to assume that this is a commonly known fact.

Our feelings towards the DCU community, with a particular nod to the DCU Students’ Union, are very mixed. It’s incredibly difficult for us to feel as though we’re valued as part of the DCU community. Our Students’ Union, albeit unintentionally, has continually let us student nurses down. We always needed the support of our SU, not just when there’s national action, as these conditions aren’t new. We can only ask that each and every student in DCU, alongside the SU Executive, begins to stand with the nurses and midwives of Ireland, if they haven’t already.

They’re not striking for the good of their health. They’re striking for the good of yours.

Myself and my classmates, across all disciplines of nursing, are now facing the reality of being forced to emigrate for a quality of life that’s not possible here when we graduate. Help keep us in the country.

Ciarán Mac an tSaoir

Image credit: Tomekah George