Ms Mowlam told delegates at the Royal College of Nursing's annual conference in Harrogate, North Yorkshire: "It is not just about statistics. It is about the relationship you have with patients. For patients, that is what it is all about.
"I know this from a personal experience when I had treatment two years ago. The relationship made a big difference to my confidence about getting through it. I know from when I have visited hospitals that what patients are desperate to get across is to say what good work the nurses do."
Ms Mowlam's speech was a triumph for the Downing Street artists of spin. She was possibly the only cabinet minister who could have extracted cheers from a disgruntled RCN, burdened with staff shortages on the wards, increasing pressures of work and a divisive pay award.
The Secretary of State for Health, Frank Dobson, stayed away from the conference yesterday - fearing, perhaps, a repeat of the booing that greeted his appearance last year. In his place, Ms Mowlam, who had flown in from the Irish Republic where she had been attending a treaty-signing ceremony at Dublin Castle, delivered a witty, confident performance that paid warm tribute to the efforts of nurses and was equally warmly received.
She offered a "special thank you" to the nurses in Northern Ireland whose commitment and contribution she had seen at first hand. "They've had some horrific jobs to face. They can be faced with an atrocity in an inhuman and barbaric form and they will never know when the next one is coming. It adds a degree of stress and tension to the job," she said.
Nurses had played a "phenomenally important" part in helping the people of Omagh recover after the bombing that killed 29 last August, as they had done for the families of the 3,000 killed and 40,000 injured in the troubles over the past 30 years. "If you have tried to match fingers, hands and bits of body together, that trauma doesn't go away," Ms Mowlam said.
For some people the peace process, while outwardly welcomed, resurrected old traumas that needed new responses. "When families became aware the violence was ending, the problems they had coped with came to the fore again," she said.
Ms Mowlam's speech, peppered with self-deprecating asides - including an account of how she had introduced her personal bodyguards to "multi- skilling" by sending them out to do the household shopping - was, however, thin on new policy.
She announced an extension of the scheme to allow nurses to prescribe a limited range of drugs, an end to short-term contracts and new measures to introduce family-friendly working conditions.
Speaking at a press conference later, Christine Hancock, general secretary of the RCN, said that she had sent the invitation to address the congress to Ms Mowlam, an old friend, last autumn.
"She brought the phenomenal experience of having been a patient and having political responsibility for a part of the UK where nurses had to do more and go further. She did nurses the honour of coming to the congress at an incredibly difficult time, paid tribute to them and made clear they are crucial to the Government's plans for the NHS," Ms Hancock said.
However, she said that there were also problems in the National Health Service. "Not all is going well. There are shortages, pressures of work, and people are feeling demoralised. Local trusts vary enormously - some give positive messages but in others people feel very undervalued."Reuse content