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08 April 2020

WHO report calls for urgent investment in nursing worldwide

The Covid-19 pandemic underscores the urgent need to strengthen the global health workforce.

Nurse checking child's blood pressure

A new report by the World Health Organization (WHO) in partnership with the International Council of Nurses (ICN) and Nursing Now, has highlighted the need for urgent investment in nurses.

The State of the World’s Nursing 2020, provides an in-depth look at the largest component of the health workforce. Findings identify important gaps in the nursing workforce and priority areas for investment in nursing education, jobs, and leadership to strengthen nursing around the world and improve health for all.

Baroness Mary Watkins, a King's alumna and Visiting Professor in the Florence Nightingale Faculty of Nursing, Midwifery & Palliative Care was one of the collaborating authors of the report. She is also Alternate-Chair of Nursing Now campaign, working to improve health globally by raising the profile and status of nursing, influencing policymakers and advocating for more nurses in leadership positions.

Nurses account for more than half of all the world’s health workers, providing vital services throughout the health system. Historically, as well as today, nurses are at the forefront of fighting epidemics and pandemics that threaten health across the globe. Around the world they are demonstrating their compassion, bravery and courage as they respond to the COVID-19 pandemic: never before has their value been more clearly demonstrated.

Nurses are the backbone of any health system. Today, many nurses find themselves on the frontline in the battle against COVID-19. This report is a stark reminder of the unique role they play, and a wake-up call to ensure they get the support they need to keep the world healthy.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director General

The report reveals that today, there are just under 28 million nurses worldwide. Between 2013 and 2018, nursing numbers increased by 4.7 million. But this still leaves a global shortfall of 5.9 million - with the greatest gaps found in countries in Africa, South East Asia and the WHO Eastern Mediterranean region as well as some parts of Latin America.

Revealingly, more than 80 per cent of the world’s nurses work in countries that are home to half of the world’s population. And one in every eight nurses practice in a country other than the one where they were born or trained. Ageing also threatens the nursing workforce: one out of six of the world’s nurses are expected to retire in the next 10 years.

To avert the global shortage, the report estimates that countries experiencing shortages need to increase the total number of nurse graduates by on average 8% per year, along with improved ability to be employed and retained in the health system. This would cost roughly USD 10 per capita (population) per year.

This report places much-needed data and evidence behind calls to strengthen nursing leadership, advance nursing practice, and educate the nursing workforce for the future. Politicians are asked to recognise that investment in nursing is an investment in their nations physical and mental health. We call for all nursing leaders to use the data from this report as a basis from which to develop and increase the Global Nursing workforce.

Baroness Mary Watkins, collaborating author of WHO report and Visiting Professor at King’s

About 90 per cent of all nurses are female, yet few nurses are found in senior health leadership positions and the bulk of those positions are held by men. But when countries enable nurses to take a leadership role, for example by having a government chief nursing officer (or equivalent), and nursing leadership programmes, conditions for nurses improve.

The report carries a clear message to governments need to invest in a massive acceleration of nursing education, creation of nursing jobs, and leadership. Without nurses, midwives, and other health workers, countries cannot win the battle against outbreaks, or achieve universal health coverage and the Sustainable Development Goals.