Fifteen trusts co-operated in an imaginative attempt to encourage former NHS nurses to return to work, and the results exceeded organisers expectations. Bernadette Duguid explains

A novel way of encouraging trained nursing staff to return to work in the NHS took approachability and informality as its guiding principles - with a very positive response.

In May last year a consortium of 15 trusts and three health authorities in Avon, Gloucestershire and North Wiltshire launched a return-to-nursing roadshow based in a double-decker bus.

The area covered stretched from Tewkesbury in the north to Shepton Mallet in the south, and four return to practice co-ordinators were based in Bristol, Bath, Swindon and Gloucester. We decided a mobile campaign would best meet the needs of the area. Its aims were to:

identify the number of potential nurse, midwife and health visitor returners;

encourage people to return to practice;

create a database of information gathered from the campaign;

produce a consistent media strategy.

The campaign was funded with£26,000 from the Avon, Gloucestershire and Northern Wiltshire education purchasing consortium.

We hired an open-staircase, double-decker London bus. The interior was customised to our needs, and we discussed how to display exterior graphics to achieve maximum impact.

Directors of nursing were given details of the campaign.

Each trust assembled a multidisciplinary group which produced information packs about its organisation detailing the arrangements for encouraging returners, a contact name for further information, application forms and any other relevant information. They also nominated representatives to attend the roadshow .

Universities were contacted and supplied return to practice requirements and career information. Some offered to join the campaign, and a representative from the University of the West of England joined us at some of the locations.

Information and maps were sent to the trusts. A response line was installed at base or those who could not visit the bus, and advertisements were placed in local newspapers.

A public relations company liased with all the trusts and compiled press releases, arranged interviews with radio and press journalists and scheduled photo-shoots.

Press releases yielded early morning radio interviews and press coverage on the first day of the campaign.

Showbiz glamour was added by actress Sarah Preston - nurse Karen Newburn in the BBC 1 series Holby City-ho helped launch the campaign.

We visited two locations on most days, arriving an hour before the trust representatives. We put information on display, unloaded the tables, chairs, and posters and blew up balloons to give to children.

The trust representatives were extremely enthusiastic, and the novelty of the bus location helped them relax. Directors of nursing from the trusts came to give their support and outline their trusts commitment to nurses returning to practice.

Several of them stayed longer than they originally planned and helped field enquiries.

Enquirers were greeted, given seats and their details recorded. The appropriate return-to-practice representative discussed the issues, gave advice and information. They were also able to advise on any barriers to returning.

Bus enthusiasts visited us at every location. They all had a story to tell, and the driver was involved in some long conversations about the history of the bus and its engine capacity .

We also targeted the wider population. A colleague giving a talk about Florence Nightingale at a local school took campaign balloons with her, and we plotted their progress up the high street to the school by watching the balloons.

Media interviews were carried out throughout the campaign area. One radio journalist stayed for half an hour and broadcast from the bus. People who had worked for, or received poor treatment from, the NHS came to air their views. Some thought we were giving healthcare advice, and representatives would inform them of the procedures to access the relevant specialty .

Many came to tell us how pleased they were with the treatment they had received from the various trusts.

Delightful response We ere delighted with the response: 320 people contacted us during the 17-day campaign, with 284 of those visiting the bus. Of these, 196 were potential returners to nursing, 32 were enquiring about returning to professions allied to medicine, 85 had other career enquiries, and 15 were interested in other areas of healthcare. In the following weeks, a further 34 people contacted us via the response line, bringing the total to 402.

Follow-up A database of enquirers is being compiled and the appropriate details distributed to the return-to-practice co-ordinators who contacted the nurses with details of their in-house courses.

Those nurses who can return immediately are offered posts. The 60 places on the return-to-practice courses for 1999 were fully subscribed, and additional returners have been offered courses this year.

Refresher courses are being designed for people who only require skills updating. Members of the clinical professions contacted potential returners for their professional groups, and appropriate arrangements were made to facilitate their return to the nearest trust.

University of the West of England lecturers sent details of its return-to-practice midwifery courses. Health service career booklets were sent to those enquiring about courses not supplied by the university .

A database has been compiled of those who cannot return to work immediately but wish to keep in touch and receive career updates.

Conclusion The format of this campaign seemed very attractive to the media and we felt the bus had a particularly relaxing ambience for people who were unsure about returning but wanted to know more and discuss options in a noninstitutional environment. Local councils were keen to help because it was a high-profile campaign which focused on their locality.

As a result of taking part in the campaign and talking to potential returners, some trusts are considering more flexible opportunities for potential returners. We also felt that the campaign showed a more human face than the NHS sometimes displays and think it could be replicated successfully in other parts of the country.