We all know that nurses care for people, whether it's for the very sick or for the teenager looking for health advice. Nurses are the people who spend more time with patients than any other health professional, who get to know them and who care for the whole person, whatever their needs.

Nursing is not just one career; it is a set of careers linked by a belief in giving high quality care to patients. Nursing opens the door to careers which can constantly evolve, throw up new challenges, and develop the individual. Nursing allows you to be a leader, a carer and a clinician. The support is there to help nurses to develop, to help their careers to evolve and to make sure that the nursing experience informs the direction of healthcare.

Nursing has come a long way from its old image of the doctor's handmaiden. These days, a nurse may be leading a team of experts in a specialist hospital, helping a 40-a-day smoker to quit or caring for a sick baby in an intensive care unit. They are the glue which holds the health service together, from care in hospitals to care given in local surgeries or in patient's homes. As the healthcare system deals with an ageing population, that care is always going to be in demand.

Take for example the difference nurses can make to public health issues, such as obesity. We know that this could be a serious problem for the UK population in the near future, but it doesn't have to be with the right public health approach, and good advice and care by nurses. Nurses can make a difference which could change not just the lives of individuals but the future health of the nation. And what's more they can lead that change.

The nursing family includes all sorts of roles performed by dedicated people. A nurse can be somebody caring for the elderly in their homes, an assistant in an operating theatre or even a nurse consultant or director of nursing. They can inform the direction hospitals and care services take and the care they can offer to patients.

The health service in the future is expected by government and patients to be responsive, personalised and adaptable, providing more services in a greater number of ways. It has to prevent ill health as well as treat it, and it has to adapt itself to the social factors which cause ill health. The government knows it needs nurses to provide care for a population with more long-term needs, and to whom good care can make a difference.

This is why it needs ambitious people, and it offers the opportunities for ambitious people to develop their skills throughout their careers. Some of the people featured in this supplement retrained as nurses during the recessions of the Eighties and Nineties. They demonstrate how rewarding nursing can be, even if it is not their first or even second career.

That is why now is the time for nursing. The ageing population and the fact that roughly 180,000 nurses are due to retire in the next 10 years means that the demand for nurses is high. The days of "a job for life" may be over, but a career in nursing can offer skills which can be used for many different nursing roles. Nurses also have the certainty that their work is absolutely vital all of the time.

Nurses are public servants, but this is not all: the ethos of public service goes further than just the public sector. Many nurses, while not earning their living in the public sector, dedicate their skills and their lives to the service of others.

Many employers in both public and private sectors support nurses to improve and adapt their skills, but there is more support out there. The Royal College of Nursing offers members a wide range of options to improve their careers and the care they give. Options range from clinical advice on addiction or nutrition for example, to postgraduate degrees through the Open University in everything from behavioural sciences to shaping public policy. Nurses can access a wide range of support to deliver high quality care and to become leaders in healthcare.

No matter where they work, or what they do, every member of the nursing workforce is in the business of public service for the public good. I am ambitious for nursing: nurses have the dedication and skills to take on a significant role beyond what patients traditionally expect, and they do it well because care is at the heart of what they do. That is why now is the time for ambitious people to take up nursing careers, and to develop themselves as leaders in healthcare.