The World Health Organization warns a severe global shortage of nurses is putting the lives of millions of people at risk and is particularly worrisome at a time when the world is doing battle with the COVID-19 pandemic. To mark World Health Day, the first ever State of the World’s Nursing Report, produced jointly by WHO and the International Council of Nurses, is being launched.
Data from 191 countries show the critical work performed by nurses is frequently undervalued. Instead of celebrating their skills and compassion, the survey finds nurses too often are abused, subject to discrimination, and work long hours under stressful conditions for low pay.
Nurses account for more than half of all the world’s health workers and are the backbone of any health system. The report reveals there are just under 28 million nurses worldwide, which leaves a global shortfall of nearly six million nurses.
The greatest gaps are found in countries in Africa, South East Asia, the Eastern Mediterranean region and some parts of Latin America. CEO of the International Council of Nurses and Co-Chair of the report, Howard Catton, says nursing shortages put many lives at risk, especially in light of COVID-19.
“We know that the evidence shows that infection rates, medication errors, identifying a deteriorating patient, mortality rates are all higher where there are too few nurses," said Catton. "Nursing numbers is a patient safety issue. But it also matters because shortages exhaust our current nursing workforce. High levels of stress, burnout, high turnover rates as well.”
The report notes many wealthy countries are not producing enough nurses to meet their own health needs. So, they employ nurses from poorer countries at higher wages than they can earn at home. Alternate-Chair of Nursing Now and Co-Chair of the report, Baroness Mary Watkins, says one way to stop this so-called brain drain from developing countries is to improve working conditions for nurses back home.
“Not only in terms of remuneration, but in terms of safety and practice both from violence in the workplace and, as is highlighted now, with COVID-19 sufficient personal protection equipment to ensure that nurses do not become cross-infected in their work at the moment," said Watkins.
There are no precise figures on the rate of infections among health workers. But WHO officials say the data that does exist shows an alarming rise of infections from COVID-19.
Italy, for example has reported a nine percent infection rate among healthcare workers in the past two weeks and recently Spain reported a figure of 14 percent. They note up to 100 nurses and other healthcare workers have died from coronavirus because they lacked personal protective equipment and other essential supplies to keep them safe.