Nurses ‘more likely’ to be anaemic than rest of population

Out of 400 nurses who were tested for iron deficiency anaemia at this year’s Royal College of Nursing congress, 15-20% were found to have diminished red blood cell production due to low iron stores in the body.

“With all the problems going on in the NHS, we need to look after our own staff first”

Toby Richards

Those behind the testing said the findings suggested the presence of anaemia might be negatively impacting on the performance of already under pressure nurses, by leaving them tired.

The findings indicate that nurses have a prevalence of iron deficiency anaemia that is often higher than the rest of the male and female population, with the exception of pregnant women.

According to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, iron deficiency anaemia has a prevalence of 2-5% among adult men and postmenopausal women, rising to an estimated 23% in pregnant women and 14% in non-pregnant women.

Professor Toby Richards and his research team from University College London carried out iron deficiency anaemia tests at the conference in Liverpool last month.

“That’s one in six to eight nurses walking around potentially under-performing”

Toby Richards

As well as testing their blood through a finger prick and checking them for symptoms, the team also carried out a questionnaire with RCN members to find out why they may be anaemic.   

Questions on the form included whether they had heavy menstrual bleeding, were vegetarian or vegan, and whether they had recently become a recent mother.

Professor Richards, who led the testing at congress, told Nursing Times that of 400 nurses tested, 15-20% were found to have iron deficiency anaemia and were also not aware.

Describing this figure as “huge”, he said: “That’s one in six to eight nurses walking around potentially under-performing and they’re the population that should be advising others.”

“With all the problems going on in the NHS, we need to look after our own staff first,” he said. “We’ve got to care for our own nurses.”

He noted that common symptoms of iron deficiency anaemia were fatigue and feeling weak.

When asked why a considerably high number of nurses were affected by iron deficiency anaemia and were unaware, Professor Richards said nurses were “more tolerant” and, therefore, may not notice the symptoms.

professor toby richards

Professor Toby Richards

Toby Richards

He also said nurses were likely to be blood donors, noting that 20% of donors were healthcare professionals. 

In addition, he highlighted that the profession was female-dominated and that women were more likely to have the condition anyway.

Professor Richards, who has his own clinic, noted that some of the causes of iron deficiency, such as heavy bleeding during the menstrual cycle, were often taboo subjects, and called on nurses to help tackle this. 

He said to break the stigma among people in general, “we have to start with the professionals”.

Following the findings from RCN congress, he said more needed to be done to educate nurses and the wider population about iron deficiency anaemia, adding: “Nurses don’t truly understand what anaemia is.”

He said it was important to educate and raise awareness of the condition among nurses because they were the ones giving advice to the general public.

Professor Richards and his research team attended the conference following the launch in May of new RCN guidelines.

congress stand

RCN congress 2019 stand

Iron deficiency anaemia stand at RCN congress 2019