A profession in the spotlight: International Nurses Day

To mark International Nurses Day we look at the issues shaping the agenda for nurses globally

To mark International Nurses Day we look at the issues shaping the agenda for nurses globally

  • Campaigns for fair pay and safe staffing reflect an emboldened workforce
  • Nurses taking a lead on essential care in refugee camps and canvassing on opioids
  • The Nursing Now campaign to raise the profession’s profile gathers pace across the globe

Nurses around the world will be marking International Nurses Day on 12 May.

From nurses taking a stand for better pay and working conditions to those giving essential care to the most vulnerable in society or developing innovations to improve healthcare for all, Nursing Standard looks at the stories and issues that have put a spotlight on the profession over the past 12 months.

Pay and conditions

Nurses in the Republic of Ireland staged walkouts over pay and staffing.
Picture: Lisa Moyles

Fair pay and safe nurse staffing levels remained at the top of the agenda for nurses around the world.

In the UK, pay deals were voted through in England, Scotland and Wales, and controversially imposed in Northern Ireland.

Safe staffing was also in the news, with the launch of an RCN campaign calling for legislation on ensuring safe staffing to be enacted in all UK nations.


May every year is International Nurses Day, a date that marks the birthday of Florence Nightingale

In the Republic of Ireland, tens of thousands of nurses have been taking part in a series of one-day walkouts since January 2019 over pay and staffing. The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation argues that low wages have led to a safe staffing crisis in the country’s health system.

In July 2018, nurses across New Zealand took part in a 24-hour strike, their first such industrial action in 30 years.

A month later they received a 12.5% pay increase and reached a safe staffing accord with the government aimed at addressing staff shortages.

There were also workplace victories for nurses in the US. In July 2018, 1,665 nurses in New York were awarded a $20.8 million settlement after a ten-year legal battle led by four nurses from the New York State Nurses Association forced the city to concede that nursing was a ‘physically demanding profession’.

In New York, workers employed in roles recognised as ‘physically demanding’ can retire earlier if they have worked in their profession for 25 years.

Meeting humanitarian needs

Nursing student Emily Stevens
volunteered in a refugee camp
in Calais. 

Nurses again answered calls to the front line to provide essential care to refugees around the world.

The United Nations Refugee Agency estimates there were 25.4 million refugees across the world as of June 2018, half of them younger than 18.

From Bangladesh to Calais, nurses were once again offering their skills and expertise.

Among them was Oxford Brookes University nursing student Emily Stevens. In a vivid account for Nursing Standard of working in Calais camp in 2018, Ms Stevens admitted nursing in a refugee camp was ‘unlike anything I could have imagined’.

‘Volunteering in Calais taught me that we are nurses, and our skill set is not reliant on products or the right size of dressing,’ she said.

‘When you have dressed 22 open infected sores by the side of a car with your knees as your sterile field, you realise what you can achieve with very little.’

Tackling health inequalities

In Kenya, nurses were able for the first time to prescribe for people living with HIV, providing vital treatment to patients living in rural areas with no doctors.

What do you have planned for International Nurses Day? Let us know by emailing 

In the US, nurses mobilised to highlight the extent of a growing opioid crisis.

According to figures from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, 130 people die from an opioid overdose every day in the US.

American Nurses Association president Ernest Grant told Nursing Standard one of his highlights for nursing was when more than 300 nurses from 45 states converged on Washington in June 2018 to draw the attention of lawmakers to the opioid crisis.

Due in part to their efforts, a law was passed that means advanced practice registered nurses can prescribe anti-addiction medication such as buprenorphine.


RCN Nurse of the Year 2018 Angela Hall. Picture: Gary Grimshaw

Nurses used their skills and knowledge to innovate and develop nursing practice in 2018.

Among them was Angela Hall, who was named RCN Nurse of the Year 2018, having won the innovations in your specialty award for transforming the care of patients with heart rhythm disorders at Jersey General Hospital.

Ms Hall was commended for driving the introduction of a new drug which was not available in hospitals in the NHS to treat rapid onset atrial fibrillation.

This has helped to avoid the need for hospital admissions and improved patient experience.

Nominees for the Innovations in Your Specialty award in the RCNi Nurse Awards 2019 include a team of nurses working in covert operations with police to provide safe-and-well checks and safeguarding for women who have been trafficked, and a nurse who has invented a slipper-style sock that makes it easier to put on compression stockings.

Another event highlighting such innovations was a special nursing ‘hackathon’ in the US in March 2018, where professionals brainstormed projects to improve nurses’ work and their working environments.

American Nurses Association president Mr Grant said ideas included a virtual reality break room and an app that nurses could use to report and track violent incidents.

He said more must be done to build environments where nurses could innovate and improve healthcare.

‘We must build a culture of innovation that inspires and taps nurses to develop new models of care, products and services that can transform health care delivery,’ he said.

Nurses as authors

Christie Watson.
Picture: Cheryl George

The realities of nursing were laid bare in The Language of Kindness: A Nurse's Story, a bestselling book charting the 20-year nursing career of Christie Watson.

Speaking to Nursing Standard last year, Ms Watson said: ‘With medicine you can talk about disease processes, pharmacology, scientific bases. In nursing you have to grapple with kindness, care and compassion. It doesn’t seek to be medicine, it’s something much more unique.’

And April saw the publication of a book by cardiac nurse and Nursing Standard editorial advisory board member Molly Case, called How to Treat People: A Nurse at Work, which has received warm reviews.

What next for nursing?

The Nursing Now campaign is gathering pace, with almost 200 groups in more than 80 countries.

Barbara Stillwell.
Picture: Barney Newman

Launched in 2018, the three-year campaign aims to raise the profile of nursing and work towards ensuring that everyone has access to healthcare.

Nursing Now patrons include the Duchess of Cambridge and Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke.

Nursing Now executive director Barbara Stilwell told Nursing Standard the second year of the campaign was going well.

‘From Bangkok to Mexico City, from Belfast to Kampala and in every corner of the globe, the Nursing Now campaign is uniting nurses, partners and influencers in an effort to change the minds of politicians and health leadership,’ she said.

‘Together we are shining a newer, brighter light on the vital contribution that nurses make towards the goal of achieving universal health coverage. This means promoting access to healthcare for everyone, everywhere.

‘By investing in nursing we are better able to reach the most marginalised groups in society and those living in hard-to-reach communities.’

Nursing Now is now calling on employers of nurses to accept its Nightingale Challenge to foster the next generation of nursing and midwifery leaders.

The Nightingale Challenge, to be officially launched at the International Council of Nurses congress in Singapore 2019, aims to persuade 1,000 employers to provide 20,000 nurses and midwives with the skills they need to become leaders in healthcare.

‘Opportunity for the nursing profession globally’

Howard Catton.
Picture: Barney Newman

International Council of Nurses (ICN) president Howard Catton says the nursing profession is on the cusp of an ‘unprecedented’ impact.

‘I genuinely believe we have just entered a period of opportunity for the nursing profession globally that we have not had before,’ he said.

Mr Catton said nursing’s impact would be felt in tackling issues such as ageing populations, the spread of infectious disease across borders and the migrant crisis.

He said the Nursing Now campaign, and the expectation that the World Health Organization (WHO) will declare 2020 to be the Year of the Nurse, would also raise the profile of the profession.

‘Nursing around the world is in the spotlight’ he said. ‘There is much greater attention being paid to what nurses are doing and the potential for nurses and nursing roles to address some of the big global health priorities we are currently facing.’

The ICN will mark International Nurses Day by releasing its annual report called Nurses: A Voice to Lead.

This year’s theme is ‘health for all’ and focuses on the need for nurses to become more active and shaping and implementing policy.

‘Many of our associations are reporting they are actively being engaged with in policy development within their countries,’ he said.

‘The scale of the shortage of nurses we have around the world is now being openly discussed, as well as the strategies that need to put in place to address that.’

Mr Catton said another important moment for nursing will be the publication of the WHO’s first-ever State of the World’s Nursing report, due in 2020.

‘It will describe, in at least 100 countries, the state of nursing in terms of numbers and training and education, as well the supply of nurses, the demand for nurses and the potential for nurses to address health challenges and priorities.’

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