THE SHORTAGE of nurses in South Africa shows no sign of being resolved and remained a problem, according to Samukeliso Dube, the general manager for medical advisory and health policy at the AfroCentric Group.
Nurses were vital frontline workers fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, and continuously working long hours without a break to provide care to patients, said Dube.
In a statement to honour International Nurses Day, celebrated on May 12, Dube said almost half of the nursing workforce in South Africa was set to retire in the next 15 years.
“This suggests existing shortages of nurses will become even greater unless we take concrete steps to boost nurse training and retention. This shortage of nurses shows no sign of being resolved and remains a problem that highlights just how valuable nurses are,” Dube said.
Dube said this year’s theme for International Nurses Day, “Nurses: A Voice to Lead – Invest in nursing and respect rights to secure global health,” offers a chance to raise awareness around the challenges and issues nurses face.
According to the SA Nursing Council, the total number of nurses on their register has increased from around 238 000 in 2011 to around 280 000 in 2020.
“This amounts to an increase of 18 percent, roughly in proportion with population growth over the same period. These numbers indicate that South Africa has made little progress over the past decade in addressing its nursing shortages,” said Dube.
According to Dube, mitigating the growing shortage of nurses should start with addressing the challenges in the training sector and reopening the previously closed nursing colleges to increase training infrastructure.
“This will not only result in alleviating the pressure on doctors, but this will also allow for sufficient nurses and create an environment where they can take time off, lessening the risk of them developing long-term mental health issues and avoiding burnout,” she said.
A recent judgment by the Pietermaritzburg High Court instructing the KwaZulu-Natal Health Department to authorise an application by the Hospital Association of SA (Hasa) for the training and accreditation of 230 nurses, was a tremendous milestone that made way for the resumption of private nursing training, however, more needed to be done, Dube said.
Sharon Vasuthevan, an education executive at Life Healthcare, agreed with Dube, saying the country needs as many as 26 000 nurses. She said, while the public and private sectors offered nursing education programmes, these need to be accelerated to meet demand.
“We are pleased to have seen 900 students graduate recently from our Life College of Learning; the challenge we face is that we are not training as many nurses as the country requires. Our ambition is to significantly increase enrolment,” she says.
Vasuthevan said currently Life Healthcare was limited with the number of students it registered in its programmes due to the introduction of the new qualifications.
“We feel there is a huge opportunity for us to attract the right kind of person to come to nursing, and we need to bring more people into the fold so that we can deliver a quality service to the patients and our communities,” she said.
Meanwhile, Hospersa, a union of more than 70 000 healthcare workers, predominantly nurses, in the public and private health sector, called for a better appreciation for nurses on International Nurses Day.
“This theme could not be more appropriate as the South African government has decided to slash budget allocation for the Department of Health by close to 2 percent over the next two financial years,” the union said.
Hospersa general secretary Waheed Hoosen said the union was concerned by the decreased budget allocation for the public health sector.
“The minister’s (Joe Phaahla) admission of an insufficient budget allocation has all but normalised the many challenges faced by the department. As a result, nurses will be at the receiving end of public criticism when they cannot deliver a quality health care service,” said Hoosen.
The union also demanded the retention of temporary nursing staff, increased remuneration, and investments into addressing poor infrastructure in the country’s public health sector.
“The absorption of the temporarily contracted nurses should be a top priority for the Department of Health, especially noting the imminent threat of the Covid-19 fifth wave. Adding salt to injury, nurses are forced to work in poorly maintained hospitals and clinics where overcrowding of wards has become part of their daily work life,” said Hoosen.
According to Hoosen, in the public sector, nurses receive meagre salaries.
“Private-sector employers are also implementing less than favourable salary increases in an economic environment characterised by a weaker rand and rising costs which have diminished nurses’ earnings,” said Hoosen.
“To show appreciation for their bravery, the government needs to invest more in this profession,” Hoosen said.