Six Million More Nurses Needed Ensure Health for All by 2030, Says New WHO Report
Nurses are on the frontline of the COVID-19 response in Thailand, where public sector nurses have been fighting for pay raises.

The world needs 6 million more nurses in the next 15 years in order to reach the Sustainable Development Goals, according to the first-ever State of the World’s Nursing report released by the World Health Organization, Nursing Now, and the International Council of Nurses.

The report, released Tuesday on World Health Day, explores challenges and successes faced by the world’s largest cadre of health workers, whose essential roles have been highlighted even more dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Nurses are the backbone of any health system. Today, many nurses find themselves on the frontline in the battle against COVID-19,” said WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, in a press release. ‘This report is a stark reminder of the unique role they play, and a wakeup call to ensure they get the support they need to keep the world healthy.’

“[The report] shows very clearly that we do not have enough nurses to meet the challenge of the SDG of Health for All by 2030 and that we will need to raise the number of qualified nurses by at least 6 million by 2030 to achieve that aim,” said Mary Watkins, co-chair of Nursing Now.

There are just under 28 million certified nurses working around the world today. However, the distribution of nurses is highly unequal – approximately 80% of nurses serve only 50% of the world’s population. The greatest shortages of nurses are in Africa, South East Asia and the WHO Eastern Mediterranean region as well as some parts of Latin America. 

But governments all over must increase investment in nursing education, protections and pay for nurses – even high-income countries. “Individually, professionally, morally of course we all value nurses – but not economically,” said Howard Catton, chief executive officer of the International Council of Nurses. Shortages of nurses in poorer countries are exacerbated by “an over-reliance in high-income countries on migration” to supply nursing staff.

“Wealthier countries are not producing enough nurses and are hiring them from ‘less fortunate’ countries at higher wages than can be achieved in their home countries,” added Watkins. 

The largest shortages of nurses are seen in some parts of Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia.

Globally, nurses make up nearly 60% of the health workforce, but only 25% of the education budget is spent on them. Nurses’ pay is highly affected by austerity measures – just as one example, nurses in Zimbabwe are only paid US $60 per month despite rampant inflation raising the cost of living.

In light of the global shortage of personal protective equipment during the COVID-19 emergency, governments must also work on improving nurses’ working conditions, according to the report.

“There is a real need to see that employment terms are attractive for nurses, not only in terms of remuneration but also safety, both in terms of violence and sufficient personal protection equipment,” said Watkins. 

Additionally, nursing is a “female-dominated profession” with “a history of discrimination and inequality, pay and gender biases,” added Catton. The report noted that over 90% of the world’s nurses are women, but most leadership roles in nursing are held by men. 

“Our nurses are the bedrock of preparedness and strong health systems,” he added. “We need a change in thinking and mindsets about the value of nursing.”

The State of the World’s Nursing report recommended ten key steps to increase investment in nursing:

  • increase funding to educate and employ more nurses;
  • modernize professional nursing regulation by harmonizing education and practice standards and using systems that can recognize and process nurses’ credentials globally;
  • strengthen capacity to collect, analyze and act on data about the health workforce;
  • monitor nurse mobility and migration and manage it responsibly and ethically;
  • educate and train nurses in the scientific, technological and sociological skills they need to drive progress in primary health care; 
  • establish leadership positions including a government chief nurse and support leadership development among young nurses;
  • ensure that nurses in primary health care teams work to their full potential, for example in preventing and managing noncommunicable diseases;
  • improve working conditions including through safe staffing levels, fair salaries, and respecting rights to occupational health and safety; 
  • implement gender-sensitive nursing workforce policies; and
  • strengthen the role of nurses in care teams by bringing different sectors (health, education, immigration, finance and labour) together with nursing stakeholders for policy dialogue and workforce planning. 

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has revealed weaknesses in health systems around the world, implementation of the report’s recommendations is  “not optional or ‘nice-to-do’”, it is a “must”, Catton urged.  

Gauri Saxena contributed to this story

Image Credits: Public Services International/Madelline Romero, State of the World's Nursing Report 2020 Executive Summary.

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