Comment

Anne Marie Rafferty: safe staffing campaigners can learn from climate change movement

It isn’t enough to bombard the public and policymakers with statistics on safe staffing – the message also needs to contain hope.
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It isnt enough to bombard the public and policymakers with statistics on safe staffing the message also needs to contain hope

Al Gore, the former US vice-president turned campaigner on climate change, has just released a follow-up to his groundbreaking 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Gores first film won an Oscar and grossed $49 million, an astonishing achievement for a documentary.

Gore and his team not only raised public consciousness, they helped make climate change a mainstream political concern, contributing to a momentum that led to the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

President Donald Trumps decision to withdraw the US from the Paris agreement is a setback, but the widespread condemnation it attracted shows how far public (and government) opinion has shifted since

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It isn’t enough to bombard the public and policymakers with statistics on safe staffing – the message also needs to contain hope

staff
Safe staffing, like climate change, is an issue where campaigners
can point to a large amount of evidence. Picture: Alamy

Al Gore, the former US vice-president turned campaigner on climate change, has just released a follow-up to his groundbreaking 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Gore’s first film won an Oscar and grossed $49 million, an astonishing achievement for a documentary.

Gore and his team not only raised public consciousness, they helped make climate change a mainstream political concern, contributing to a momentum that led to the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the Paris agreement is a setback, but the widespread condemnation it attracted shows how far public (and government) opinion has shifted since 2006. It is viewed as an aberration that puts the US out of step with the rest of the world. This is progress.

Applied to nursing

Safe staffing, like climate change, is an issue where campaigners can point to a large amount of evidence. We know that mortality and outcomes are linked to safe staffing, and patients are more likely to die when they are cared for by less highly skilled teams.

What if the tactics of climate change campaigners – the Al Gore approach – could be applied to nurse staffing?

The first question is: how aware are the public of safe staffing, and do they care about it? Intuitively, patients get it – staffing is often an issue cited in complaints about poor care. But most of the time, patients are socialised into being grateful. Simply spooling the statistics is not sufficient to shift public opinion to a level where it exerts overwhelming pressure on the government.

Tipping point

The data keep rolling in but we are still waiting for that big breaker, the final bit of evidence that will make a change in policy inevitable. But perhaps we should stop surfing the stats. What if the tipping point is not a scientific one but an inflection point in the curve of public opinion?

The task then becomes how to compete for, and win, the attention of the public or politicians. Perhaps we have not paid enough attention to how we communicate the message? In the film An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore used compelling visuals and stories that could carry the emotional burden of the issue lightly.

Politicians don’t want to be besieged by more depressing statistics. Like the public, they want to see hope. Gore’s new film, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, does more than frighten people with the evidence on global warming. It also points out that it is in our power to avert catastrophe. It inspires viewers to believe they can make a difference.

Saving lives

The safe staffing message should include positives: we can afford more registered nurses at the bedside (patients recover more quickly and are less likely to return for care), safe staffing saves lives but it also means patients have a better overall experience of care.  

We need to experiment with and be much more creative in refining and getting our message across while building the solutions for future sustainability. Gore and his fellow campaigners were able to ride on a wave of apocalyptic thinking and a mood of public anxiety, and then offer hope.

Do bursary removal, high numbers of vacancies, reductions in funding for CPD, pay restrictions, Brexit and burnout represent the nursing apocalypse? It is up to all of us – nurse leaders, researchers, front-line nurses – to tell the story of this apocalypse, to bring it vividly to life. And then offer a way out of crisis – the hope of safe staffing.


raffertyAnne Marie Rafferty is professor of nursing policy and former dean of the Florence Nightingale Faculty of Nursing and Midwifery, King’s College London

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