NST Leader: Tackling nursing issues

MALAYSIAN nurses, especially those in public service, are one burdened lot. The Health Ministry recognises this and steps are being taken to tackle the problem.

What ails the Florence Nightingales of Malaysia? Here is the list of woes. Low wages, inequitable distribution of work, lack of career development and the catch-all "welfare" distress.

It would have been a reason for celebration had these issues been resolved before the International Nurses Day, but that slipped past on Sunday. Be that as it may, the government must do something quick before more nurses leave the public service.

To be fair to the ministry, there is a global shortage of nurses —  a scarcity of 4.5 million by 2030 in the estimate of the World Health Organisation. And in Malaysia, the shortfall is "acute", to use the word of Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad.

Addressing a press conference early this month, he said the shortage of nurses could hit 60 per cent by 2030. This is a hard problem to solve, however adept one is at managing uncertainty of this nature. This is made worse by developed countries turning to Asia to plug the nursing gap there.

Only 10 years ago, nursing graduates were in surplus, with private and public colleges producing close to 10,000 nurses a year. With some private colleges having closed down, Malaysia produces only some 3,000 nurses. Such hard-to-predict swings make no commercial sense for private colleges to return.

Perhaps, as the health minister has suggested, there is a business case for private and public hospitals to work together to solve this national issue. A piece of advice to the private hospitals, though. Take a long view, like the government does. Profit postponed doesn't mean profit foregone.

Malaysia must not be seen by private hospitals — and private colleges — as the only market for its nurses. If they are of world-class quality, like the nurses from the Philippines are, then the world is the market.

Wage and wage-related issues in the public sector, our first item on the list of woes, are an old story. It has been around for 12 years. The government's plan to increase the salaries of public servants by as much as 13 per cent on Dec 1 may just put an end to this worry.

Inequitable distribution of nurses, our second point, is not dissimilar to those faced by doctors.

With public hospitals running low on nurses, especially in rural areas, absence of work-life balance is a perpetual lament. Placement of nurses needs serious attention, at least more serious than it has been in the past.

Lack of career development, our nurses' third worry, is also contributing to the growing attrition rate. Like in life, there must be progression in such a career.

Feeling stuck in a position for long isn't going to help nurses to be engaged in their job, which in some rare cases could lead to disastrous outcomes for patients.

Welfare, the final point in the worry list, may mean different things to different people.

But it should at least mean that the employer cares for its workers. For sure, nurses are caregivers. But they, too, need care.

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