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How nurses can use their expertise to influence global health policy

ICN chief Howard Catton looks at what the Year of the Nurse and Midwife has in store

In his first column since taking the top job at the International Council of Nurses, Howard Catton looks forward to a year of opportunity for nursing


Picture: iStock

It’s been a while since I last wrote for Nursing Standard, so hello again. In February this year it was my great honour to be appointed chief executive at the International Council of Nurses (ICN), so hola, and bonjour too.

Nursing is one of those wonderful careers that can take you to places you would never have imagined as a nursing student.

Many of us are in jobs that were not even dreamed of when we embarked on our careers, and many nurses are working in areas that are far removed from the traditional view of what nurses do.

It is a pleasure to be working in the organisation that represents the world’s 20 million nurses, raising the profession’s voice and doing our best to make sure it is heard loud and clear.

International collaboration

In May, the ICN took a delegation of nurses to the 72nd World Health Assembly (WHA) meeting in Geneva, Switzerland.

The WHA is the decision-making body of the World Health Organization (WHO), which determines its policies, appoints its director general and approves and oversees its budget.

‘The ICN, as the global voice of nursing, can influence WHO policy and help to shape the future of healthcare everywhere’

Because of the ICN’s special status with the WHO, we are in an almost unique position of being able to have our delegates at the assembly contribute to the debates, a privilege usually only granted to representatives of the WHO’s member nations.

It means the ICN, as the global voice of nursing, can influence WHO policy and help to shape the future of healthcare everywhere.

The answers to the challenges the world faces can only be found through international collaboration and cooperation: multilateralism isn’t a nicety, it’s a necessity.

A year of opportunity

The highlight of the WHA was the confirmation that the WHO has designated 2020 as the Year of the Nurse and Midwife.

The ICN had lobbied hard for this to happen and WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus listened to our calls.

He had the farsightedness and wisdom to see the benefit of highlighting the contribution of nurses to healthcare, and WHA members made his vision a reality.

It means that 2020, the bicentenary of the birth of Florence Nightingale, which was always going to be an important year for nurses, should prove to be a momentous one.

The ICN has lots of plans to make 2020 memorable, and I hope nurses in the UK and all around the world will celebrate it and raise the profile of our amazing profession.


WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaking at the World Health
Assembly in May. ​​​​​​Picture: PA

Key debates

While the Year of the Nurse and Midwife announcement was undoubtedly the icing on the cake at the WHA, the bread and butter work of the debates was just as important.

The ICN intervened in a number of important debates and made the voice of nursing heard in fringe meetings and in the cafes and restaurants of the Palais des Nations.

The ICN nurse delegates spoke on:

  • Sustainable development.
  • Universal health coverage.
  • Prevention and control of non-communicable diseases.
  • Substandard and falsified medical products.
  • Human resources for health.
  • The health of refugees and migrants.
  • Patient safety.
  • The health of women, children and adolescents.

Looking at that list of interventions shows the breadth of nursing as a profession – all aspects of human life were touched on, and that was appropriate because nurses are involved in every aspect of life and death.

Shaping the future

Being able to contribute the voice of nursing to the WHA was a great example of how nurses around the world are shaping the future for the benefit of patients.

In 2020, we can create a step change in the image, public awareness and understanding of our profession, which it is hoped will result in increased investment in nursing, with many new senior nursing posts putting nurses in a position to lead healthcare delivery and policy.

It will be a unique opportunity to celebrate this great profession, tell the world what we are capable of, and encourage others to join us on the journey of a lifetime.


Howard Catton is chief executive, International Council of Nurses, and former head of policy and international affairs at the RCN

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