Diana Nurses - What A Difference A Day Made

I think many of us remember where we were on 31 August 1997, when the news of the tragic, sudden death of Diana, Princess of Wales shocked the nation, and in fact, the world. 

One day on, returning to my desk as Nursing Advisor for Children’s Services at Department of Health and opening emails, it was surprising just how many emails were already arriving with suggestions that hospitals could be renamed after the Princess, or even new hospitals built in her name. Sometime later that day an idea emerged of a nursing service – a flurry of conversations around the different ways forward – and so the concept of a children’s nursing service to commemorate the life of Diana, Princess of Wales was born. It felt like a momentous day, the start of something new and something that had the power to make a real difference to children and families.  

However, the difference wasn’t just a day, reflecting now on the 20th anniversary of Diana’s death it is clear that the difference was made over 36 years – her lifetime.

It was incredibly difficult to try to develop the idea to commemorate her life and work, embedding the values and approaches associated with Diana, Princess of Wales when all I could base this on were the press stories we had all seen.  This aspect of the work was made easier by the incredibly generous support of the Princess’ friend The Hon Rosa Monckton who was able to give an insight into the real person behind the public persona. The resulting programme of work identified a new way of working for the proposed nurse-led Diana teams, working with children with life-limiting conditions; with team members being able to work across professional and organisational boundaries to provide a seamless care service and promote the concept of ‘joined-up working’ and for nurses to break down barriers and be budget holders. 

At the time, the £4m Treasury funding provided eight teams in England, one team in Wales, coordinators in Northern Ireland and an education programme in Scotland. In addition, funding was made available to provide an education resource for the teams ‘Sharing the Care’ focusing on overcoming the challenges of breaking down boundaries: sharing the philosophy of care and building up partnership working. Each of the services also undertook an evaluation of their work which underpinned the development of a nurse-led approach in future programmes of work.

Now, 20 years on since Frank Dobson MP announced in the House of Commons that the proposal for Diana Nurses was moving forward – and with a renewed interest in the life of Diana – it is a pleasure to see that Diana’s legacy continues. Eight of the teams are continuing to provide high quality care to children and families and a relaunched service in Scotland sees Diana nurses working within Children’s Hospices Across Scotland. It is an achievement for the teams to have survived the many challenges within the NHS such as budget and workforce pressures alongside sector reorganisations. Alongside that achievement we need to acknowledge that the aim of the programme to lead to a nationwide network of Diana community nursing teams has not been achieved, nor, I would suggest, have we achieved the hope for seamless care services.  Until we know that the 49,000+ children living in the UK with a life-limiting or life-threatening condition experiences that high quality, joined-up care available 24hrs a day, 365 days per year, we have to strive to achieve that lasting and fitting memorial to Diana’s life.

There is much left to do, we need a workforce able to deliver palliative care approaches in any setting; we need sustainable funding to ensure high quality care across hospital, community and hospice services; we need education and training programmes to ensure that professionals are skilled in delivering care and we need a society that recognises that babies, children and young people die too; a society that cares and supports those who are experiencing the injustice of a premature death. 

As we mark World Hospice and Palliative Care Day on Saturday 14 October, the global day of action to raise awareness of palliative care, it is timely to also recognise Diana, Princess of Wales’ contribution to the international field, from the early days when she promoted a compassionate understanding of people with HIV and AIDS, through to the work of the Diana Memorial Fund’s Palliative Care Initiative working in seven countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

If we can achieve the aim of this year’s theme for the day, Universal Health Coverage and Palliative Care – Don't leave those suffering behind”, perhaps then we will have achieved that long-desired legacy for Diana, Princess of Wales.

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