Nurses are more important to society today than ever. So we must do far more to reward, support and involve them, according to one of the most senior voices in the profession.
Around the world there are more than 20 million nurses and midwives caring for ill, disabled and dying people as well as promoting health and preventing disease. Right now, nurses are helping save lives in the midst of humanitarian crises from Syria to Sudan. Others are caring for the complex needs of rapidly ageing populations in advanced nations. Wherever there’s a hospital or clinic, nurses are on the frontline.
And today, nurses play a more important role than ever, according to Howard Catton, director of nursing and health policy at the International Council of Nurses.
“Nurses often stay with a patient throughout the time of disease or even a chronic illness over the course of many years,” he says. “They are at the centre of coordinating services, helping patients navigate through different healthcare systems.”
Reversing the tide of departures
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), we need nine million more nurses and midwives in the next decade. Yet, as Catton points out, many nurses are leaving the profession early due to the demands being placed on them as chronic conditions increase, demographics change and health systems are forced to function with less money and often with fewer staff. Catton adds that international migration means nurses also need cross-cultural competence and language skills.
A registered nurse himself, he believes there is a pressing need to make sure these dedicated individuals are not only supported today, but set up to succeed tomorrow.
“While recruitment is one side of the coin, retention is the other,” he says. “My advice is simple: Value the nurses we have."
“Nurses need access to professional and clinical development opportunities. They must be recognised and respected at work. And they must be well compensated. These factors play a key role in attracting young talent. National policies have the power to make these demands a reality.”
Giving nurses a seat at the table
At the same time, Catton argues that nurses must increasingly be involved in decisions in healthcare systems as well as in emergency situations.
He reports recently speaking to nurses involved in a disaster-relief effort. “There was no consultation with the nurses as to how the overall effort should be coordinated,” Catton explains. “The excuse was that the committee did not invite them because it had always been this way.”
For Catton, this was a big mistake. “Nurses are critical in re-building community infrastructure and have experienced first-hand what it takes to execute long-term development and disaster clean-up efforts,” he says.
“With fresh leadership at the helm of the WHO, I look forward to strides being made in this arena. Historically, there has been a challenge of having the nursing voice represented but, with the appointment of a Chief Nurse at WHO, the future looks bright.”
More broadly, Catton calls for an on-going dialogue with nurses about how to organise and deliver healthcare systems around the world that are fit for the future.
“Long gone are the days of healthcare hierarchy,” he says. “Nurses are partners in care and they have a voice. Our job is to listen.”
The pivotal role of nurses
In France, independent nurses like Francois Sterpione work with teachers, administrators, and parents to ensure that a young girl can receive daily injections for her diabetes. His goal is to make sure that she can have a normal school day, “just like any other kid.” In Switzerland, a young nurse enabled a working mother to reclaim her career and self-esteem by ensuring her wound treatment matched her lifestyle.