Community Health Nursing

Setting the scene: an introduction

These are exciting and challenging times for community nurses. Liberating the Talents (DOH 2002) provides a framework for the expansion ofclinical roles and calls for greater freedom to encourage creativity. This book has been designed to support staff who may be new to working in acommunity setting and is an essential guide to practice. We envisage it will be useful for community staff nurses and nurses moving from an acute work environment to take up a community post. These ‘front-line’ nurses might be working in any of the following disciplines: occupational health nursing, health visiting, community children’s nursing, community learning disability nursing, community psychiatric nursing, school nursing, district nursing and general practice nursing. Such nurses are not only responsible for personal care of patients and for a range of clinical interventions, but also for the assessment of health needs, planning, delivery and evaluation of direct care for individuals and groups of patients. In addition, they may be responsible for mentoring students, and directing and supervising the work of support workers. The aim of the book is to develop and support a practitioner so she can function safely and effectively in a range of primary care/community settings. The authors take an inclusive approach, working from a health and social needs perspective and demonstrating the involvement of patients, professionals and non-professionals. A range of topics relating to professional issues in community nursing is addressed. The text reflects recent and current government health and social care policy reforms and the effect of these on the roles and responsibilities of community nurses. Community nursing is seen in the context of political, social and environmental influences. Interpersonal and practical skills, as well as the knowledge base required by community nurses, are critically analysed and linked to relevant theory. Examples and exercises relating to the range of community disciplines are included throughout the book to stimulate the reader’s creative thinking. Topics covered include new ways of working, nursing in a community environment, personal safety, therapeutic relationships, working collaboratively, conceptual approaches to care, professional issues in community nursing, public health and health promotion.


The economic crisis of the 1970s led to the first real major reforms in the National Health Service (NHS). The centralisation of administrative power led to dissatisfaction amongst NHS employees. In 1976 the Resource Allocation Working Party reviewed the allocation of funds and began the move away from the focus upon London hospitals. The then government advocated a change of balance in services, emphasizing the need to prioritise older people, people with learning disabilities and the mentally ill (DHSS 1977). The importance of strengthening service provision within the community was clearly stated. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government was elected to power. The Conservative election manifesto made no statement relating to health policy.

With underpinning values of efficiency savings and cost improvement, the NHS in the early 1980s was bureaucratic and seriously underfunded (Lawton et al. 2000). In 1982, Roy Griffiths, a successful manager but with limited experience of health care management, was charged with the review of the management of the NHS. It was widely thought by the government that poor management was behind the failings of the HealthService.

In the published report (1984) Griffiths proposed the introduction of general managers, who, in his view, would be able to lead services more cost-effectively. It was intended that key members of the disciplines they managed would professionally advise these managers. For the nursing profession this meant that line managers were no longer experienced nurses, which caused concern relating to professional issues and to the representation of community nursing views in policy making and community planning (Thornton 1995).

The introduction of general managers was followed in 1991 by internal market reforms. This step was intended to improve services by introducing competition and a purchaser–provider split. In theory, purchasers would ‘shop around’ for the best deal. General practice (GP) fund-holders were allocated an annual sum of money to buy a defined range of services for patients. The mixed economy of health care was intended to restrain the bureaucracy of the ‘nanny state’ and increase input from voluntary and private organisations (Pierson 1998). The result was an increase in the amount of time and effort spent liaising with a great number of people, but it did also create opportunities for flexibility.

In May 1997 a large majority elected the Labour government to power under the leadership of Tony Blair – signalling the end of the long Conservative hold on government. Frank Dobson led a well prepared team into the Department of Health. Policies began to be issued almost immediately (Hyde 2001). A key feature of the health policies of this Labour government was that they were ‘joined up’ with those of education and employment. In documents such as Saving Lives: Our Healthier Nation (DOH 1999), links between health and issues such as poverty, housing and employment were acknowledged. Nurses, who daily witness the effects of these links, welcomed this approach. The Labour government continued the work begun by the Conservative administration in shifting the balance of care delivery into the primary care sector, to create a primary care-led NHS.Within 9 months of Labour gaining office, The New NHS: Modern, Dependable (DOH 1997), a 10-year plan for health, had been published. This heralded the introduction of health improvement programmes (HIPs) and the development of primary care groups (PCGs) into primary care trusts (PCTs), which are, in effect, based around clusters of general practice surgeries. A major radical reform of the NHS was in prospect.

PCTs were fully established in England by April 2002. The equivalent bodies in Scotland are also called primary care trusts; in Wales they are known as local health boards; in Northern Ireland as local health and social care groups (Savage 2003).PCTs are responsible for assessing, planning and delivering health services, improving the health of the defined population, and working towards the proposed public health agenda (DOH 1999). They work collaboratively with local partners, such as Social Services, and the local community. Working alongside the PCTs, on a contractual basis, are the NHS trusts. The role of the health authorities has changed significantly: the recently formed strategic health authorities are larger organisations than the previous authorities, and provide overall management for both PCTs and NHS trusts. The equivalent organizations in other parts of the UK are: in Scotland, unified health boards; in Wales, health authorities; and, in Northern Ireland, health and social services boards (Savage 2003).

Alongside these structural changes, government policy focused on the needs of patients and their carers, and advocated patient participation in care (DOH 2001a). A First Class Service: Quality in the New NHS (DOH 1998) considered the quality of services offered, and launched clinical governance as a new framework for ensuring efficient and effective care within the NHS. Nurses were, on the whole, more receptive to the idea than their medical colleagues, who have traditionally monitored themselves. Many community nurses have taken the lead in issues of clinical governance. Quality is high on the agenda, and various structures are in place to ensure the optimum standards, including national service frameworks (NSFs),the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE), and the Commission for Health Care Audit and Inspection (DOH 2000). In July 2000 the government published The NHS Plan, which sets the agenda for health care services centred on the patient and tailored to the patient’s needs. The onus is on PCTs to implement national guidelines to meet the needs of their respective local communities. The PCTs form the hub of the new NHS and are politically and financially powerful. Nurse representatives appointed to PCT boards need to be assertive, astute, have effective leadership skills and a clear vision of the future for community nursing.


The NHS Plan (DOH 2000) committed to the extension of nursing roles in all settings. The development of such initiatives as rapid response, intermediate care, early discharge and nurse-led clinics offer challenges and opportunities for community nurses. In 2001 the Department of Health published a report, Shifting the Balance of Power, which set out a programme of change designed to empower patients and the workforce to deliver this ambitious plan.

Politicians recognise the enormity of the task set before people and acknowledge that a huge cultural shift is necessary together with effective communication at all levels of the NHS organization. Effective implementation of clinical governance is pivotal to the development of innovative community nursing practice and different ways of working.After more than 50 years of domination by the acute, specialist, hospital-based service, these changes are radical. Liberating the Talents (DOH 2002) calls for a transference of power to the front-line staff and – even more radically – to patients. There does seem to be a real attempt to change the status quo. So, it would appear that, after decades of being the Cinderella service, community health care has now gained a pivotal position in the NHS.

Community care and community nursing are by no means new phenomena. Looking back over time, health care has been delivered in various ways and in a wide range of locations. The actual setting in which care occurs is directly influenced by the predominant form of health care at that time. This, in turn, develops as a result of the wider societal influences of the day (Tinson 1995).

Community nurses work in a great variety of settings – clinics, health centres, people’s homes, schools, workplaces and private homes. Additionally, they work with different groups of people. For example, school nurses tend to focus upon children and adolescents and occupational health nurses care for a specified workforce. Some community nurses may care for all age groups, but spend much of their time with a particular subgroup. The majority of district nurse visits tend to be to older people (Audit Commission 1999). Community nurses work together with other team members. Collaboration and team working are essential for effective patient care. These issues are addressed in Chapter 6.


The United Kingdom has been described as an ageing society, in which the number of people over the age of 80 years is set to increase by almost half as many again by 2025 and the number of people over 90 years of age is predicted to double (DOHb 2001). The needs of older people and their carers are often complex, and assessment of these requires a high level of knowledge and skill (Ryder 1997). Effective community care depends on the coordination and integration of health and social care. To ensure that appropriate and effective health and social care is available for those older people who become frail or ill will become one of the community services’ greatest challenges. It is equally important to acknowledge the great potential older people have to contribute towards communities and to encourage their participation in designing and developing services. There are, of course, other groups of people who need to be considered carefully. It is important not to stereotype individuals, but planning to meet the needs of people with common characteristics can produce very effective initiatives. Good examples of these can be found in the government’s ‘Sure Start’ strategy (DOE 1998).

A tool, which may be of great help in assessment of local needs, is a community profile. This can aid the identification of health needs and should involve the general public’s viewpoint. Professional groups and less formal agencies may work together to produce a health needs assessment to assist in prioritising. These important issues are addressed in more detail in Chapters 3 and 10.


Policy directives and patient choice, amongst other factors, have led to the development today of a primary care-focused NHS. According to Clarke (1999), community specialist practitioners work with individuals, families and communities towards the achievement of independence. Community nurses work within a network of complex processes in particular localities – not just in a different context from their colleagues in institutional or acute care settings. Community nursing involves much more than a change of location. From an exploration of the literature, it soon becomes apparent that the term ‘community’ itself is extremely difficult to define, as it can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Three commonly identified elements associated with ‘community’ are locality, solidarity and significance. In beginning to grasp the dynamic nature of a community, we must embrace all three elements and gain insight into the complex social relationships that exist between people, families and the community as they experience health and illness (Clarke 1999).

Community nursing is a fairly unique area of practice, embracing a philosophy of care that relates to primary, secondary and tertiary prevention, to a wide range of different interventions, and to health education (McMurray 1993). The ‘client’ can be an individual, family or community. Advanced clinical skills are required to fulfil the role of community specialist practitioner, including highly developed interpersonal skills, critical thinking, decision making, creative management and leadership, and a high degree of self-awareness (Clarke 1999). Each member of the community nursing team provides a valuable contribution to the delivery of high-quality effective care.

Nurses are now delivering care in a variety of different ways within the community, and new initiatives within primary care include walk-in centres and nurse-led personal medical services (PMS). Nurses are increasingly becoming the ‘gatekeepers’ of health services in the community. In general practice, the patient’s first point of contact is often a nurse. As their roles develop in response to the current NHS reforms, community nurses are required to expand their repertoire of skills and expertise. Earlier hospital discharges and more sophisticated treatment regimes mean that nurses are engaged in more technical and complex packages of care. ‘Hospital at home’ services, often co-ordinated by community specialist practitioners and their team, provide early hospital discharge for specific groups of patients – for example, those recovering from orthopaedic surgery. Many community hospitals provide respite care in nurse-led beds and ‘rapid response’ teams prevent hospital admissions, for example, for chest infections and stroke (Thomas 2000).

‘Intermediate care’ refers to ‘that range of services designed to facilitate transition from hospital to home, and from medical dependence to functional independence, where the objectives of care are not primarily medical, the patient’s discharge destination is anticipated and a clinical outcome of recovery (or restoration of health) is desired’ (Steiner and Vaughan 1997). Wade and Lees (2002) suggest that now is an ideal time for a review of current health care provision, with appropriate intermediate care services providing an opportunity for practice development which can incorporate interdisciplinary working and build bridges between the acute and community sectors. There is potential for a more needs-led and person-centred approach to care.

Intermediate care can be delivered in a variety of settings, including community hospitals, hospital at home schemes, community assessment and rehabilitation schemes, social rehabilitation schemes, and hospital hotels. An interdisciplinary approach is called for in which nurses, social services personnel, therapists and medical staff work together.Within the framework for nursing in primary care, nurses, midwives and health visitors have been given three core functions: first contact, continuing care and public health.

Community nurses will have a key role in delivering this exciting agenda (DOH 2002). In conclusion, the following chapters further develop the issue raised in this Introduction.

nurses will have a key role in delivering this exciting agenda (DOH 2002). In conclusion, the following chapters further develop the issue raised in this Introduction.