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Alarming shortage of nurses at children’s intensive care units

Lack of specialist nurses meant only one paediatric intensive care unit in the UK was operating at safe staffing levels, according to a report
Picture shows a nurse in a paediatric intensive care unit caring for a baby who has had surgery

Lack of specialist nurses meant only one paediatric intensive care unit in the UK was operating at safe staffing levels, according to a report

Paediatric intensive care units (PICU) across the country have an ‘alarming’ shortage of specialist nurses with only one unit in the UK operating at safe staffing levels, a study has found.

The PICANet annual report for 2021 , published jointly by the University of Leeds and the University of Leicester, found that most hospitals were relying on health care assistants to maintain safe staffing levels. The report was based on data collected from January 2018 to December 2020.

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Lack of specialist nurses meant only one paediatric intensive care unit in the UK was operating at safe staffing levels, according to a report

Picture shows a nurse in a paediatric intensive care unit caring for a baby who has had surgery
Picture: Science Photo Library

Paediatric intensive care units (PICU) across the country have an ‘alarming’ shortage of specialist nurses with only one unit in the UK operating at safe staffing levels, a study has found.

The PICANet annual report for 2021, published jointly by the University of Leeds and the University of Leicester, found that most hospitals were relying on health care assistants to maintain safe staffing levels. The report was based on data collected from January 2018 to December 2020.

A minimum of seven registered nurses should be on shift in a 24-hour period for every level 3 critical care beds, according to standards drawn up by the Paediatric Critical Care Society, but the report found only one unit – at the James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough – was meeting that target.

The other 29 such units in the UK did not have enough specialist nurses, with many PICUs unable to fill vacancies.

RCN says study shows the reality of the workforce crisis

RCN director for England Patricia Marquis said: ‘Parents will find this extremely alarming. Most people wouldn’t believe that only one paediatric intensive care unit across the whole UK has enough staff to function properly, but this is the reality of the workforce crisis. Key roles in specialist nursing teams are lying vacant for years.’

The Portland Hospital, a private maternity hospital in London, had the least amount of qualified nurses in the PICU in the UK with less than four on the ward, the study found. This was followed by the Royal London, the Royal Brompton in London, John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford and the Royal Hospital for Children in Glasgow, which all had five qualified nurses or less.

PICUNet said external factors were responsible for the shortage, including salaries and the cost of living in capital cities.

Pragmatic and flexible approach of staff ensured care wasn’t compromised

Paediatric Critical Care Society president-elect Carli Whittaker said although PICUs were not meeting staffing standards the report showed that care had not been compromised, which she said was due to the pragmatic and flexible approach of staff.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said the NHS is currently experiencing unprecedented demand due to COVID-19, the winter season and elective waiting lists, and providers may need to use temporary staff.

They said: ‘We are on track to deliver our commitment of 50,000 more nurses, including in paediatric care, putting the NHS on to a sustainable long-term supply in future.’


Find out more

Paediatric Intensive Care Audit Network: Annual Report 2021

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