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My message for every nurse: policy matters so make sure you help shape it

ICN’s Howard Catton calls on all nurses to get involved in politics and decision-making

ICN’s Howard Catton calls on all nurses to get involved in politics and decision-making


WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at the ICN's Singapore congress 

I have been to some amazing gatherings of nurses over the years, but my first International Council of Nurses (ICN) congress as chief executive officer was outstanding.

We had more than 5,500 nurses from 125 different countries in Singapore at the end of June, all of them keen to learn from each other, represent their colleagues back home and share their experiences.

Air of optimism

There was an upbeat vibe right across the whole event, an understanding that nursing is in the spotlight globally and a real sense that our time has come.

ICN represents nurses at all levels and stages of their careers, and at our congress we had nursing students rubbing shoulders with chief nursing officers, ward managers debating with professors of nursing, and nurses chatting to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) chief nursing officer Elizabeth Iro.

We even had a surprise visit from WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who interrupted his journey to the G20 meeting in Japan, underlining the value he places on nurses in his vision of healthcare for all.

Our theme this year was 'Beyond healthcare to health', focusing on prevention rather than cure and putting more resources into primary care.

We were so fortunate with our high-profile speakers, all of whom really ‘get’ nursing and why we are such an important profession.


Elizabeth Iro, chief nursing officer
at the World Health Organization

Commitment to nursing

Getting WHO to appoint a chief nursing officer was an incredible achievement and seeing ‘our’ global chief nursing officer on stage was a wonderful confirmation of the zeitgeist.

In her speech, Ms Iro called on nurses to make sure their voices are heard wherever decisions about healthcare are made. Policymaking matters, and as she said: ‘We need to get our voices heard. We need to roar.’

We had former prime minister of South Korea Kim Hwang-sik extolling the virtues of nursing in his role as chair of the committee that is nominating two Austrian nurses for the Nobel peace prize. Marianne Stöger and Margaritha Pissarek carried out decades of voluntary work helping people with leprosy (Hansen’s disease) in his country.

Recognition for humanitarian work

People ask why Marianne and Margaritha should be considered for a peace prize, but in post-war South Korea in the 1960s, the essential humanity of their sacrifice, selflessness and service became acts of peace.

Dr Tedros spent the day with us, and when we thanked him for coming and for saying how important ICN is to WHO’s plans, he said it was he who was thankful because he would not be able to achieve his vision without us.

‘Get involved with policymaking and politics, and make sure your voices are heard loud and clear’

Businesswoman and philanthropist Cindy McCain, whose late husband was Senator John McCain, spoke movingly about people trafficking and how nurses can be the ones to spot the signs and help to rescue people trapped by it. And she promised to advocate for nurses and help them into positions of power and influence whenever she can.


Nurses Marianne Stöger and
Margaritha Pissarek 

Our colleagues from the Nursing Now campaign were there, meeting the ICN board to help plan some fantastic events for the WHO Year of the Nurse and Midwife celebrations in 2020, the bicentenary of Florence Nightingale’s birth.

Political recognition

But perhaps it was Halimah Yacob, president of Singapore, who really hit the nail on the head when she called us a ‘congress of superheroes’.

Madam Halimah thanked nurses everywhere for putting their hearts into their jobs, saying: ‘Nurses deserve more than a pat on the back because, as the saying goes: “Save one life, and you are a hero. Save 100 lives, and you must be a nurse”.’

Isn’t it great when politicians really get the message?

And for nurses, that message is get involved with policymaking and politics, and make sure your voices are heard loud and clear.

Making policy can seem distant and detached from what most nurses are doing day in, day out.

‘Take your place at the table’

But it is vital nurses’ voices are heard when decisions are made, otherwise we will not be able to bring about the changes that are necessary to move the focus from healthcare to health.

In her speech to congress, Elizabeth Iro said it is important nurses take their own chairs to the policymaking table, and that is exactly right.

Because as one colleague recently said: ‘If you aren’t sitting at the table, you can end up on the menu.’

So, don’t get eaten for breakfast, get in the room, take your own knife and fork, and get stuck in.


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

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