International outlook: new WHO director general pledges nurses in top team

Susan Williams puts the focus on newly-elected Tedros Adhanom Gheberyesus, who this month takes up the post of director general of the World Health Organization

‘I fully understand the critical role nurses play in health systems and agree that we must devote more attention and resources to nursing.’ These words come from Ethiopian minister of foreign affairs Tedros Adhanom Gheberyesus.

Picture: Alamy

Why should his response to UK and global health and nursing leaders be of interest? Because this month (July) he replaces Margaret Chan as World Health Organization (WHO) director general.

More importantly, Dr Tedros, a former health minister with a background in community health and immunology, has committed to having a nursing representative at a senior level in his team.

Over the years, nursing adviser posts have been lost at the WHO headquarters, in Geneva, Switzerland, and in its regional offices.

Having a nursing position does not guarantee that WHO policy and programmes will be better shaped by practical nursing perspectives, but the right nurse leader with political acumen, strong nursing, midwifery and health networks, clear focus and an ability to persuade, could have a significant effect on global healthcare despite WHO’s sprawling mandate and funding challenges.

Dr Tedros has identified the health needs of women, children and adolescents as important, and he has a track record of investing in these in Ethiopia, which has involved developing the role of health extension workers to boost the community workforce. Health extension workers are women recruited from local, particularly rural communities, who undertake a year’s training and have a particular focus on prevention and health promotion.

Dr Tedros is the first director general to be elected by a vote of member countries, rather than WHO’s executive board. He was one of three candidates. His role now is to deliver on his promises.

About the author

Susan Williams is senior international manager in policy and public affairs at the RCN 

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