Exclusive: ‘Foreign recruitment risks the destruction of health systems,’ warns ICN chief

International Council of Nurses chief executive says developed countries should focus on homegrown staff
Thomas Kearns

The new interim head of a global nursing body has urged Western nations not to ‘destroy’ the health systems of developing countries by draining them of nurses to fill their own staffing gaps.

Speaking exclusively to Nursing Standard, International Council of Nurses (ICN) interim chief executive Thomas Kearns said developed countries should focus on homegrown staff.

He acknowledged there is a global shortage of nurses, but urged countries to take an ‘an ethical approach’ to foreign recruitment.

Global shortage

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates there will be a global shortage of 12.9 million healthcare workers by 2035.

Some 40% of nurses in developed nations are expected to have left the profession by 2023, according to the WHO.

Earlier this year, Nursing Standard reported that the Jamaican government had warned of ‘severe’ implications for patients because of the volume of senior nursing staff leaving to work abroad.

One hospital reported having to cancel all major surgery for a week because of a shortage of specialist nurses.

Professor Kearns said: ‘Nurses have always travelled to seek experience in other countries. However, there does need to be an ethical approach when countries plan their healthcare workforce.

‘It makes very little sense to destroy or damage the health service in one jurisdiction, just to support your own.’

Focus on retention

Professor Kearns added there should be a focus on retention, as well as recruitment.

He added: ‘We have perhaps got stuck too long looking at recruitment in isolation, when to get effective workforce planning you need to focus on retention too.

‘If you only look at getting people in at one end, you will continue to haemorrhage staff at the other.’

Professor Kearns is taking a sabbatical from his position as executive director of the nursing and midwifery faculty of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland to lead the ICN until a permanent successor is found.

The ICN represents about 130 national nursing associations worldwide. The RCN left the organisation in 2014 because it said it could not justify the £500,000 membership fee.

Professor Kearns took the opportunity to address the issue of whether the college should re-join.

Hope for a return

He said: ‘My hope is that the RCN, subject to agreement, will be able to be part of the ICN again in the near future.

‘They will be most welcome as I have always looked to the UK as phenomenal leaders and innovators when it comes to training and developing nurses.’

A campaign group called We Are Global Nurses has written to RCN chair of council Michael Brown calling on the college to reconsider its membership.

The letter was signed by more than 100 people, including Public Health England deputy chief nurse Joanne Bosanquet, NHS Digital chief nurse Anne Cooper and All Pakistan Nurses Association president Zeba Arif.

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