Celebration of nurses and midwives highlights need for investment
David Lee

Editor's note: David Lee is a Beijing-based consultant and author who focuses on energy, health, international politics and international development. The article reflects the author's opinions, and not necessarily the views of CGTN. 

Entering the third decade into the 21st century and coinciding with the 200th birthday of Florence Nightingale, one of the founders of modern nursing, the year 2020 marks the first-ever Year of the Nurse and the Midwife designated by the World Health Organization (WHO).

In China and across the world, there will be year-long celebrations for nurses and midwives. Major events are expected to take place in May, the month designated for some of the most important global health events, including the World Health Assembly in Geneva, the International Nurses Day on 12 May, and the International Day of the Midwife on 5 May.

Amid all these celebrations to highlight the contributions of nurses and midwives as essential health service providers, the most important message, I believe, should be one about enhanced investment.

The lack of qualified professionals is a global problem. WHO statistics show there is a global shortage of health workers, in particular nurses and midwives, who represent more than 50 percent of the current shortage in health workers.

Moreover, for all countries to reach the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) on health and well-being, the world will need an additional nine million nurses and midwives by the year 2030. The shortage is even more severe in developing countries, emerging economies included.

China provides an interesting case. Four decades of rapid economic growth in the country has given rise to a well-off population that puts higher demands on health service. China's national statistics show, as of end 2015, every 1,000 Chinese citizens had 2.36 nurses to provide health care, and this nurse-population ratio was about one fifth of the global average.

As revealed by a 2016 news story run by People's Daily, China's official nurse personnel set-up as a proportion to overall health workers was developed by the then Ministry of Health back in 1978, the year when China was kicking off its reform and opening-up process.

This nursing guideline dated four decades ago defined a nurse-physician personnel ratio of 1:1, coupled with a minimum threshold of 0.4 nurses attending to each bed in hospital. Such guidelines of course cannot satisfy contemporary demands in the world's second largest economy. As the Chinese society grows more affluent, the pain caused by shortage of nursing resources is felt even more acutely.

In recent years, though, China is quickly catching up. Statistics show there were 3.24 million nurses by end 2015, an increase of 58 percent over 2010. According to national healthcare planning, there will be 4.45 million nurses in China in 2020, representing 3.14 nurses for every 1,000.

An online appointment platform in China allows qualified nurses to provide services to seniors and patients at their homes. /VCG Photo

An online appointment platform in China allows qualified nurses to provide services to seniors and patients at their homes. /VCG Photo

Meanwhile, the growing number of nurses is complemented by better training and capacity building. Also, more nursing resources are being developed at grassroots level and in communities.    

Such unprecedented growth of the national nursing capacity is expected to be a key enabler for the country to fulfill its Healthy China 2030 strategy. As China deepens its healthcare reforms to achieve universal health coverage, the dynamics taking place in the nursing and midwifery sector will sure play a key role.

Indeed, there is still much room for nursing and midwifery in China to improve, but the China case of investment catching up quickly is an important one for the developing world. The key lesson learned is to never underestimate the surge of health service demands. Investment in the national nursing capacity is a must, and it should happen in parallel with socio-economic development.

Thanks to the spotlight of the Year of the Nurse and the Midwife, national experiences should be shared with international colleagues and strategic dialogues should take place to encourage targeted investment at both national and international levels.

More than a century ago, the lamp of Florence Nightingale the nurse offered hope and warmth to the sick and wounded. Today we are blessed to live in a world markedly different from the one where Florence Nightingale found herself in. In today's world, the figurative lamp of the great human spirit of Florence Nightingale must continue to shine for the global population and light up the path towards universal health coverage.

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