Career advice

Forensic nursing: why I love this complex and unpredictable job

Senior forensic nurse Jessica Davidson is helping develop postgraduate education in her field

Senior forensic nurse Jessica Davidson is helping develop postgraduate education in her field

People who are sexually traumatised n​eed to know they will be well looked after,
says Jessica Davidson. Picture: Queen's Nursing Institute Scotland

Improving services for people who have been sexually assaulted or raped was at the heart of Jessica Davidson’s decision to seek a qualification in this challenging area of practice.

‘I felt very clearly that nurses could provide an enhanced service, if we worked alongside medical colleagues,’ says Ms Davidson, a senior clinical forensic charge nurse based in Edinburgh and covering south-east Scotland. ‘It’s putting nurses in the room to make a truly effective sexual assault examination.’

While nursing colleagues in England can lead on this work, Scotland’s legal system means the role is just beginning to develop here, with trained nurses now providing dual examinations with forensic physicians.

When kindness isn't enough

Currently, Ms Davidson is one of only three nurses in Scotland to achieve an advanced practice postgraduate certificate in sexual assault examination.

‘More cases can be lost at the scene of crime than in the courtroom. It’s an area where you need to tread very carefully and be sure you’re doing the right things'

‘Qualifying in this area isn’t just about being kind, but also being forensically aware,’ says Ms Davidson, who chairs the RCN nursing in justice and forensic healthcare forum.

‘More cases can be lost at the scene of crime than in the courtroom,’ she adds. ‘It’s an area where you need to tread very carefully and be sure you’re skilled and doing the right things.

‘Someone who has been sexually traumatised can have all kinds of issues. They need to know they will be well looked after and that we’re providing the best possible service when they’ve been brave enough to make a complaint.’ 

Nurse education programme

Ms Davidson is now helping to develop a one-year course that will start in January 2020 at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh. ‘It’s an exciting time,’ she says. ‘We need accredited nurse education at a suitable level so we can start to deliver the standards of person-centred and informed care wanted by those who have been raped or sexually assaulted.’   

After qualifying in 1997 as an adult nurse, Ms Davidson worked in orthopaedic trauma and A&E before she heard that police custody was looking for bank nurses. When a full-time job came up in 2009, she took it, moving into her current role in 2012.

Today, she manages half the team of 25 nurses who travel between police stations as needed. All are band 6 and have non-medical prescribing qualifications, enabling them to deliver 97% of custody work.

A role that challenges you to question your own biases

Forensic nursing is an area ripe for research, says Jessica Davidson.
Picture: Queen's Nursing Institute Scotland

Jessica Davidson explains what the role requires and why you should consider forensic nursing:

  • Research opportunities There is currently no body of evidence to support what forensic nurses do, says Ms Davidson. ‘It means there’s a lot of opportunities for people who are interested in research. You could be a trailblazer’
  • You have the chance to implement public health initiatives, using your skills and observations in very different ways. ‘You can look at trends and strategies,’ she says. ‘If you want to be at the forefront of social movements in your community, it’s a really good area to come into as you get a chance to do a bit of everything’
  • Being inquisitive is important ‘You need to be curious about your society. You also need to challenge your own biases and be a reflective practitioner’


Patients with complex needs

‘A large proportion of our patients have drug and alcohol problems,’ says Ms Davidson. ‘They may be very worried about not receiving their drugs and experiencing withdrawal. There is a lot of emotional tension.

‘If you can do a full consultation from A to Z, it reduces tensions and builds trust,’ she adds. ‘A lot of our patients won’t go anywhere near a hospital or a GP because they are frightened or nervous.’

‘There is a lot of support among the team – it’s things you can’t talk about at home’

Among the attractions of her post is its breadth and unpredictability. ‘You can be doing brief interventions on drugs and alcohol one minute, then managing something really serious the next – such as someone who has committed murder and isn’t well,’ says Ms Davidson.

‘You’re looking at what is best for that person from a healthcare point of view, and what is best for the victim and the law. It can be extremely complex.’

Strength through team reflection

The work can take its toll on staff’s own well-being. ‘People call it burnout, but I prefer to call it secondary trauma,’ says Ms Davidson, who is a Queen’s Nurse.

‘As a team, we spend a lot of time talking and there is a lot of support for each other. It’s things you can’t talk about at home – sometimes you can’t translate what you see and hear into normal life because it’s so extraordinary.

‘Of course, it changes your world view. Nurses in all spheres are witnesses to the most traumatic events of people’s lives. When that’s happening, you want to be available and authentic for that person, but afterwards you need to check-in on how you are.’

Last year, her contribution was recognised with an RCN fellowship. ‘To get something so personal made me very happy,’ she says. ‘But it also meant that, as forensic nurses, we were on the map – we have arrived.’

Lynne Pearce is a health journalist

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