As the NHS celebrates its 70th anniversary Professor Lynn Kilbride, Dean of the School of Nursing and Health Sciences, looks at how nursing has changed over the years.

Image: Student nurses with patient, 1973.

The jobs nurses do today are unrecognisable from their roles in 1948.

Modern nurses operate in a high-tech and complex environment that has evolved to meet both age-old challenges and ones that have emerged since the founding of the National Health Service. Nursing has changed to reflect the healthcare priorities of the population, becoming a more varied, diverse and empowered profession along the way.

The primary role of nurses in 1948 was to care for and try to help ill people to become better. So much of nursing now is centred upon helping to prevent the individual becoming unwell in the first instance. Through education, nurses play a huge role in helping people to take responsibility for their own health and that of their families.

Nurses also take much more responsibility for decision making in patient care than they did 70 years ago. Whereas nurses were previously expected to carry out the instructions of doctors without question, they are now integrated into an interdisciplinary team who bring their own individual strengths to clinical decision making. A high proportion of nurses are now involved in prescribing, illustrating how they are now given responsibility to provide care for patients without depending on skills of others around them.

We have fields of nursing – adult, learning disability, children and mental health – but over the past seven decades we have seen each of these roles become more specialised, reflected in a range of other continuous professional development opportunities. There are more end points for registered nurses than ever before, with individuals involved in research, management, and a range of other roles of critical importance to the healthcare sector. The result of all of this is that we have had to change the way we educate nurses to ensure they are equipped to meet the ever-changing demands of the population in terms of health, such as helping to address the need for much greater mental health education in the UK.

Nursing is now a degree-level qualification and evidence shows that graduate nurses reduce morbidity rates and improve patient outcomes. The increased focus on research within nursing means that the healthcare professionals who work most closely with patients can not only identify problems but are also empowered to form the evidence base that leads to a direct improvement in the level of care that patients receive.

Ultimately, our role at the University is to provide the best quality of nurses possible for Scotland, anda high proportion of our graduates are employed by our partners at NHS Tayside and NHS Fife. Student nurses spend 50% of their training on clinical placement, which means that the professionals they learn from are as important to the student as the academic staff in the University. The better the nurses that graduate from Dundee, the better teachers our future students have on placement.

And, of course, the nurses themselves are very different to what they once were.

The monochrome films made to mark the founding of the NHS largely depicted a certain type of nurse – female, young and white. Stereotypes persist but our #mendocare campaign that aims to break these down and get more men into a traditionally female-dominated workforce. Gender, race, religion or nationality should not be a barrier to a career in nursing because all that matters are that our nurses are compassionate, articulate and capable of working effectively and making decisions in a very high-pressure environment.

And in that sense nursing hasn’t changed so much after all.