We face a worldwide shortage of 9 million nurses

Urgent action is needed to avoid the catastrophic nursing shortage predicted by WHO

Urgent action is needed to avoid the catastrophic nursing shortage predicted by WHO

Nurses at a hospital in Amuria, Uganda. Picture: Alamy

All around the world nurses are facing problems: a lack of education and development, poor working conditions, low recognition and insufficient remuneration.

But the most pressing problem is surely that there are not enough nurses to go around. The World Health Organization (WHO) has predicted the world will be short of nine million nurses by 2030.

The predicted nurse shortage is staggering

Can you imagine a world that is short of nine million nurses? It is a staggering statistic that must be addressed by governments if we are to have any chance of preventing that prediction becoming a reality.

WHO, working with the International Council of Nurses (ICN) and the Nursing Now Campaign, is gathering information from governments for a comprehensive report on the nursing workforce worldwide, to be published in April 2020.

It will provide baseline information that will help governments plan.

The State of the World’s Nursing report, co-chaired by me with Nursing Now’s Baroness Mary Watkins, will:

  • Describe how the nursing workforce will help deliver universal health coverage and the sustainable development goals.
  • Highlight areas for policy development for the next three to five years.
  • Provide a technical description of the nursing workforce in WHO member states.
  • Drive investment in nursing and midwifery workforces, and address gender equity agendas for generations.

Worldwide intelligence on nurse numbers

With the 30 September deadline for data to be submitted approaching, we have written to the world’s national nursing associations to remind them to contact their government health departments and chief nursing officers and ensure their country’s data is sent in on time.

The report will describe the nursing workforce in great detail, place nursing at the centre of WHO’s efforts to bring better healthcare to everyone on the planet – especially people in low and middle-income countries – and make suggestions about future policy, practice and research.

The first of its kind, this report will be a seminal work that will show how nursing can and will contribute to the global health agenda: nurses are at the forefront of addressing the big health challenges that all countries are facing.

But, equally importantly, it will reveal the gaps where additional support and investment are desperately needed.

‘In years to come, this report can steer changes in nurse education, advanced practice and nurse-led models of care, helping to modernise health services’

Nurses from around the world discussed the report at ICN’s congress in Singapore in June. We held sessions in which we encouraged national nursing associations to use the data in the published report to influence their countries’ policymakers, to advocate for more and better educated nurses, and to enhance the quality of the nursing workforce and their pay and conditions.

In years to come, this report can be used to steer conversations about changes in nurse education, advanced practice and nurse-led models of care, helping to modernise health services.

Global movement of nurses must be sustainable 

The nursing workforce is and always has been a mobile one. Nurses travel the globe as they pursue their careers and find better education and new experiences for themselves and their families. Sometimes they travel out of necessity, as refugees or displaced persons. And sometimes, they just set off to fulfil their dreams.

The global nature of the workforce provides fantastic opportunities for sharing and collaboration, but of course some countries are more able than others to sustain such movements of staff across borders.

The State of the World’s Nursing report will help some countries to become more self-sufficient in their nursing workforces and encourage others to sustain their workforce by adhering to the WHO’s global ethical recruitment code of practice.

2020 is a big year for nursing: Florence Nightingale’s bicentenary, the WHO Year of the Nurse and Midwife and this report will all shine a spotlight on our profession and show the world just what we are capable of if we are properly resourced.

Howard Catton is chief executive of the International Council of Nurses


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