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South East Interview with Sharon Blackburn, Policy & Communications Director at the National Care Forum

18 Mar 2016

In this interview Sharon discusses her long career, the challenges and opportunities of working in the independent sector, and what she believes the future may hold for nursing.

Why did you start a career in nursing, and how have you progressed through your various roles?

I had always had an interest in people. I had cared for people both at home and through volunteering, and then in my last year at school I was given the opportunity to participate in a two day work experience programme. I loved it. I had an informal interview at the end of the two days, and it progressed from there.

I had a passion for Mental Health but decided to undertake my general training first (SRN as it was then). I practised for a couple of years post initial registration then studied for my post registration RMN.

I worked in the NHS for 10 years before moving to the independent sector. A family/ geographical move meant I needed to seek new opportunities.

I have now worked in Adult Social Care (ASC) for 26 years and am passionate about people who use the services, their families/significant others and the staff who work with them across a range of settings. During the last 26 years I have worked in direct service provision as well as operational and strategic roles. I have worked nationally for 24 of the 26 years. Service provision has been diverse: care homes, home care, housing with care and support. The organisations have been for profit, not for profit, charitable and housing associations.

The standout feature is that I have been supported by amazing people to fulfil my potential. I now try to apply that principle to the people I work with.

The roles I have had are varied: projects officer, home manager, quality manager, director of nursing and care, plus a range of executive director roles. I am still motivated by seeking improved outcomes for people who use services and how nurses and care staff can contribute to that.

Why did you choose to work in the independent sector?

When I moved with my family I explored a range of opportunities. The post that I applied to turned into a new role in an organisation that had been created to take over care home provision from the Local Authority. My last post in the NHS was as a CPN. I had worked within a multidisciplinary team. This role felt like a natural progression. I didn't view it as a move into a different sector, but as a sector that complemented and supported the NHS.

What does your current role at the National Care Forum (NCF) entail?

My present role is very much about promoting quality through the not for profit care sector. The NCF is a member-based organisation. Our members provide services, including nursing in a range of care and support settings, and housing to adults/ older people using services. The needs of people using ASC are becoming increasingly complex. The skill and expertise of nursing and care staff is vital in these settings.

I provide member-facing services and also represent the views and experiences of NCF at a national level with key organisations such as the Department of Health, RCN, CQC, Skills for Care, NHS England, the list could go on. These views influence the national policy agenda.

What do you think are the main challenges and opportunities that independent sector nursing is facing?

A career in the independent sector is rewarding. It provides great career opportunities and ways of working with people which value relationships to deliver person-centred care. It requires nurses to practise with people who have multiple complex needs and who often are living with dementia. This requires a breadth of clinical skills and competencies with high degrees of responsibility. People using services are cared for until the end of their lives.

There is a national shortage of nurses which impacts ASC as much as it does the NHS. Funding of ASC and the role of ASC is not recognised in the same way as the NHS and people outside of ASC do not always fully understand its role or value.

Nursing and nurses in ASC still suffer from the label of being a 'Cinderella service'. In addition the value and expertise of nurses working with older people still does not receive the recognition it deserves. The challenge and opportunity is for those of us working in this sector to articulate and demonstrate in practice the benefits of integration and a shared agenda around people using services, not around professional silos or even the long term condition that a person may be living with. The opportunity to engage in a different dialogue across health and social care has to take place. It has commenced, but it needs to gain momentum so that nurses across systems can fully realise their skills and expertise for the benefit of people using services. The opportunity to learn and look through a different lens has never been greater. Equally nurses working in ASC need to understand the arena/context that colleagues in the NHS are working in.

When did you become an RCN member and do you think this has been important to your career?

As soon as I started my nurse training I became a member of the RCN. I had the opportunity to engage in the Forums and for a period of time was Chair of the RCN Mental Health and Older People Forum. The professional networks have been helpful. These have been extremely useful to my career, although it would be fair to say I may not have recognised it at the time. Strong professional friendships have been established as a result of my involvement.

As an employer I have also valued the advice available for RCN members and those employing them.

2016 is the RCN’s centenary year - a good opportunity to reflect. How do you think nursing has changed during your career and what do you think the future may hold for the nursing profession?

Nursing will always be going through a period of change. It is important through the journey to establish stability but that does not mean standing still.

Having a strong evidence base to support clinical decisions is a key change that has occurred during my career. I believe this is for the better. The range of roles and opportunities has considerably expanded.

Looking ahead, recruiting and retaining a nursing workforce will be an ongoing challenge. The voice of nurses and nursing needs to be heard and valued for the contribution that it can make to the health and wellbeing of people using services. The challenge will be to value diversity within the profession irrespective of where nurses choose to work and which client group/ speciality they choose to work with.

Nursing will look different. We have an ageing population and therefore an ageing workforce. We cannot do that which we have always done. New ways of working are emerging. How do we utilise the nursing workforce in such a way that fully utilises a nurse’s skill and expertise whilst creating new opportunities and career pathways?

People who use services are increasingly gaining more voice, choice and control. This should be welcomed as it provides nurses with an opportunity to share and use their expertise along with other professionals involved in people's journeys.

Nursing still does and will continue to provide immense opportunity – it is up to each nurse to speak up positively for the profession and to be the change each nurse wants to see.