NST Leader: Fixing nurses' future

THE International Council of Nurses (ICN), a federation of 130 national nursing associations representing 28 million nurses, has an overarching theme: "Our nurses. Our future."

The ICN may have missed the irony of the "period" that stands between the nurses and their future. Our Health Ministry mustn't.

For some Malaysian nurses, their nursing career here is truncated. As the years tick by, the "some" is becoming "many". Add to this the pressures exerted by the shortage of nurses nationwide, especially in the public healthcare sector.

Understandably, the call for Putrajaya to do something about the now and the future of nurses is growing louder. One such was as recent as Tuesday, when MCA vice-president Datuk Lawrence Low urged the government to increase the salaries and allowances of nurses as a way to stem the shortage.

Sure, money is a critical factor in nurses' attrition rate, especially in a Malaysia that is fast becoming very expensive to live in. The shrinking ringgit doesn't help. The purchasing power of nurses' take-home pay shrinks as much.

Many are heading to the Middle East, the United States, Britain and Singapore, where the pay is many times more and the exchange rate is an added bonus. Even after deducting the higher cost of living there, the pay and perks are a clear and present enticement.

Care has an economic power and Putrajaya must recognise it. Covid-19 showed us how important nursing care is. We shouldn't wait for another pandemic to ask them to prove their worth. Nursing care is an essential service.

But the government mustn't just stop at improving pay and perks. There are other reasons why nurses are calling it quits. Our nurses are a burdened lot.

Health Ministry figures tell us that there was one nurse to 283 patients last year. The problem is that ratios such as this don't tell the whole story. One untold tale behind the ratio is distribution of nurses throughout the country. Cities get more nurses than rural areas. Ditto states in the peninsula versus Sabah and Sarawak.

Rare are the nurses who work just eight hours a day. Spillover into another shift isn't uncommon in certain locations. The result is burnout, leading to a decline in the quality of healthcare. With nurses under repeated stress, negligence is just minutes away.

The combo of attrition and shortage is a lethal mix. Yes, pay and perks are a must, but this is a cure for the moment. Nurses' future is about the long term. Or more precisely, about what happens between the ages of 22 and 60, a 38-year career span. To be fair to Putrajaya, this isn't just about what the government causes to happen to the nurses' career. It is also about nurses managing their career.

We see this as a partnership: the government helping the nurses to help themselves. This needs a deep dive, which we dare say isn't happening. It is not just about the right remuneration for nurses. It is also about retaining them. And having retained them, making their career a rewarding one.

A deep dive requires a few critical questions to be asked by Putrajaya. We suggest one: what is the best way to make nurses' career in the public healthcare sector a rewarding one?

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