The mis-treatment of older people in hospitals; is a ‘trip advisor’ approach really the best way forward?

At what point does the government stop relying on gimmicks, voluntary codes and recommendations from those without any power to implement change and actually take a lead to improve nursing care for older people? 

The Royal College of  Nursing’s research into the provision of care to older people suggested staffing issues were central to good nursing care, government have responded to this by suggesting we need to take a ‘trip advisor’ approach to raising the quality of services (photos optional presumably!).  However, this is only part of the answer,  problems extend beyond staff to patient ratios and will require more than patient recommends to improve quality.  Working practices imported from the business sector into care provision, along with a poor attitude from wider society and government toward the care of older people in the UK also need to be addressed.

Abraham (DoH, 2011) suggested the mistreatment of older people in the NHS is not just about people being too busy, but also about staff  being indifferent to older people,  i.e. showing no particular interest or concern about older people.  Coming from a professional background, where I have worked with nurses in hospital settings and as an academic teaching student nurses, it is fair to say I have never met a nurse   who has purposely set out on their career to mistreat an older person.  On the contrary, they have entered the profession because they want to care for people.  So what changes once on the hospital ward?

Arguably, such indifference radiates from wider society onto the hospital ward.   Both Government and society are disrespectful of older people, describing older people as a ‘demographic time bomb’, their care portrayed as an expense we can ill afford.  Once such an attitude is prevalent in mainstream society is it any wonder a culture of disrespect flourishes across society, leading to the de-humanisation of the older person, wherever they might be.  As Jo Webber of the NHS Confederation rightly point out; once in a hospital bed the older person no longer matters – achieving the task at hand efficiently is more important than the individuals’ dignity. This then provides the foundations from which poor practice in the care of older people develops across a multitude of care providers from public sector institutions to private sector providers through to the individuals that make up society.

Whilst external factors have an important role in shaping attitudes toward older people, this alone does not fully explain professionals’ indifference to older people when providing care.  Understanding what happens between individuals embarking on nurse training to actually working with older people on a ward is also significant. Menzies Lyth’s research provides an interesting insight from which to understand what happens once on the ward.  Menzies Lyth drew on  Jaques (1955) notion of  ‘social defences’ used by nursing staff to manage the anxieties inherent within their practice to understand behaviour within organisations.

Jaques (1955) initially used social defences to understand how nurses cope with the high levels of stress and anxiety associated with the job. However, it was developed later to take into account structural factors arguing that social defences were the result of poor organisational structure. This provides a useful framework from which to explore how current structural systems interweave to produce an environment where mistreatment flourishes on hospital wards.

Social defence mechanisms include care for patients split into individual tasks undertaken by a number of nurses; one person performs the same task to many patients rather than working with one patient to provide all their care. This facilitates a distancing between the patient and nurse, which protects the nurse emotionally. Organisational factors support a depersonalised approach by moving nurses around wards, which then allows the nurse to distance themselves from patients so as not to become emotionally involved.  Other social defences include a denial of feelings and over emphasis on professional detachment and strategies to reduce anxiety around decision-making, for example working in prescriptive ways, performing repetitive tasks, and delegating decision-making.  The lack of connection between patient and nurse arguably facilitates an environment in which mistreatment might develop, or is ignored.  Therefore, the organisation and delivery of care at a structural level within the NHS is of relevance to improving care for older people.  Higher staff ratios would be a good start because we have to ask is it possible, emotionally, for an individual to deliver high quality care with compassion and dignity consistently in the current system?

Poor levels of care appear endemic within the current system, the speed with which each new revelation now appears is in danger of convincing government and society such an approach is the ‘norm’, however, we must be careful not to just accept this as inevitable, or somehow acceptable in a time of austerity.  Indifference toward the care of older people represents the tangible outworking of a system of care that has lost its way; where commissioning outweighs compassion and meeting the demands of the system outweigh delivering care with dignity.

At what point does the government stop relying on gimmicks, voluntary codes and recommendations from those without any power to implement change and actually take a lead to improve nursing care for older people?

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About digalpin

I gained my social work qualification from the University of Southampton and worked for 14 years in mental health, disability and older people services. I am currently a senior lecturer in post-qualifying social work at Bournemouth University and am conducting research on government and societal attitudes and responses to the mistreatment of older people in health and social care provision for my doctorate. My views are my own.

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