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‘World must hear their voices’: WHO director-general sends message of support to nurses

A day after attending the G20 Summit in Osaka, at which world leaders pledged to strengthen health systems, the director-general of the World Health Organization made a surprise visit to a peak nursing conference to express his support for nurses worldwide.

In a speech presented on the penultimate day of the International Council of Nurses (ICN) Congress in Singapore, Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus urged the audience that "we must all hold the G20 leaders to the commitments they have made... Not only because that’s what health workers deserve, but because it’s what the world needs.

"We simply cannot achieve universal health coverage and the health-related targets in the Sustainable Development Goals unless we empower and equip nurses and midwives, and harness their power."

The delegate's presence at the five-day conference, which attracted thousands of nurses this year, was welcomed by many in the profession.

As part of his organisation's commitment to health workers, and to celebrate The Year of the Nurse next year, WHO is proposing that each country bring one nurse and one midwife to the 2020 World Health Assembly.

"The world must hear their voices and their stories," said Ghebreyesus.

WHO also hopes to introduce an annual award for nurses and midwives globally to recognise and celebrate their good work. Nurses are pivotal at preventing, reducing and reporting patient harm, said Ghebreyesus, and they do so in environments which are often high-pressure and even dangerous.

Greater recognition and investment is an important step towards creating a sustainable healthcare workforce – which is currently under threat. WHO predicts that by 2030, the world will be facing a shortfall of 18 million health workers needed to achieve and sustain universal health coverage, with half of this shortfall in nurses and midwives.

"We can have the best medicines, the best diagnostics, the best hospitals and the best health insurance, but if we don’t have health workers delivering safe, effective, people-centred care, we don’t have a health system," said Ghebreyesus.

"Health workers are not a cost, they’re an investment – an investment that pays a triple return for health, gender equality and economic growth."

Dr Ghebreyesus also called for a greater protection of nurses against workplace discrimination and abuse, describing the present realities as "a stain on our sector, and a betrayal of our calling as health professionals". Australia's own Louisa Lam, Deputy Dean at Federation University Australia, presented a talk on the "intractable" issue of workplace aggression experienced by Australian nurses later the same day.

Increasingly, nurses are made vulnerable in other ways too. Ghebreyesus noted a disturbing trend in recent years which has seen healthcare professionals targeted by violent groups. This year, WHO has documented 478 attacks on health facilities, with 72 deaths.

To provide a snapshot of the workforce in all its dimensions globally, WHO is currently working on the first State of the World’s Nursing report, which will be presented to the World Health Assembly next year.

"This will not be a snapshot to put in a frame and admire," said Ghebreyesus. "We hope it will be more like a photo of a house before a major renovation.

"We hope that countries, regions and partners will use the data from this report to engage in policy dialogue and make evidence-based decisions on how and where to invest in the nursing workforce."

Ghebreyesus called for contributions from every country, to make sure our snapshot is accurate and reliable and represents the world of nursing and midwives.

Read the full transcript of Dr Ghebreyesus on the WHO website.

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