Unless you've been living in a news vacuum, you will not have failed to miss the A&E crisis that has been dominating the headlines. It's a double edged sword - on the one hand the media is a great way to highlight an issue, but on the other hand the focus is often so narrow it fails to give the bigger picture.
A&E targets are a very visible part of the health service. They're a crude measure of how well one cog in the huge NHS machine is doing. But the fact remains; the pressures A&E departments are facing - overwhelming demand in the face of under-staffing and under-resourcing - are being played out in every setting, be it in hospitals, in general practice or at home.
As Chief Executive of the RCN, one of the most enjoyable aspects of my job is speaking to nurses. Their dedication to patients, and their thirst for knowledge and expertise so they can achieve more is palpable. Time with them reminds me of why I chose to enter the profession myself. But the sad truth is, far too many encounters with those on the frontline must also include the omnipresent, negative aspects of modern day nursing. Words like 'crisis', 'breaking point' or 'unsafe', are often found in eye-catching headlines, but they describe the grinding reality of daily life for many of our nursing staff.
A community sister recently got in touch and told us about the massive knock-on effect of A&E nurses being told to discharge patients before they are fit, just to free up beds. This, along with more people choosing to be cared for at home, has had a huge impact on health and social care professionals working in the community.
Her story is typical of the stress and strain community and district nurses are experiencing. She said she and her team of nurses have to see up to 20 patients in a 7.5 hour working day. A day which also includes travelling time and completing paperwork. She and many of her staff have been sick with stress-related illness because they cannot cope with what is being asked of them. They are worried that being under such pressures will cause them to make mistakes. But in her own words, which nobody can dispute, she finished by saying the NHS is "an amazing health system which should be cherished".
The solutions, like the problems, are complex. There are currently 24,000 vacant nursing posts across the country and one piece of recent research estimated there could be 36,000 by 2030. Having the right number of nurses will not fix the NHS but it will certainly help.
Since the Government announced the withdrawal of student funding for would-be nurses last year, we are already hearing of a 20% drop in applications for graduate nursing courses. And the 1% pay cap on salaries is not helping to encourage people into nursing and is making existing nurses reconsider whether they can even afford to continue.
If the NHS wants to achieve a clean bill of health, we need to ensure there is adequate staffing, funding, resource and education. The health of the nation is at stake.