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International Nurses Day: "Safe staffing saves lives"

May 12, 2006 -- The International Council of Nurses' theme for the 2006 International Nurses Day was: "Safe staffing saves lives." In extensive materials we assume were distributed worldwide, the ICN explained why safe staffing matters to patient outcomes, and even included a short discussion of staffing ratios. The materials also discussed what might be done to improve staffing, including aggressive public advocacy by nurses themselves. The ICN's Nurses Day campaign received press coverage across the world, including in the Imphal Free Press (India), the Gulf Times (Qatar), and the Nation News (Barbados). We commend the ICN for using the annual celebration, which has often meant little more than angel-oriented lip service, to highlight one of the most critical issues in nursing worldwide. And we salute the Nation News in particular for a piece whose hard-nosed focus on improving working conditions strikes us as a fine way to pay tribute to nurses today.

In connection with International Nurses Day, the ICN produced a 60-page document (pdf) called "Safe Staffing Saves Lives: Information and Action Tool Kit." The Kit has information on safe staffing, including the extensive research showing why it matters to patient outcomes, and different views as to how to obtain good staffing in an era of intense economic pressures on health systems. The Kit briefly addresses nurse migration. It includes a short discussion of the "pros" and "cons" of the kind of mandatory staffing ratios currently in place in Victoria (Australia) and California. The Kit also offers a number of general recommendations for action, including a sample press release and even a sample Powerpoint presentation, all directed at the safe staffing theme. The Kit recommends that nurses advocate for improved staffing in a variety of ways, including educating and lobbying governments, hospitals, colleagues, and the public at large. The title of this campaign does seem a bit redundant, though we suppose it makes clear that "safe staffing" involves issues of life and death. We commend the ICN for what appears to be a serious effort to make May 12 mean something more than a pat on the head.

The ICN campaign received press coverage throughout the world. The Imphal Free Press (India) ran a short May 12 item, "International Nurses Day." The piece notes the ICN theme and describes a celebration sponsored by the Nurses Association of Manipur that included government and educational officials. A speech by the Manipur Health and Family Welfare Minister DK Korungthang reportedly praised Florence Nightingale, whose birthday serves as the date for Nurses Day. But the piece suggests that the Minister used Nightingale's commitment to providing care "without any discrimination" to urge nurses to serve not only those in Imphal itself, but those "in the remote hilly areas too." This is a reference to a worrisome trend in the global shortage, namely internal migration of nurses away from rural areas. The piece reports that a nursing official urged the government to pass a piece of nursing-related legislation the report does not describe. It also notes that nursing students sang songs and narrated a short account of Nightingale's life, and it concludes by noting that "[s]weets were also distributed to the patients of JN Hospital."

In a very short May 13 piece, "Nurses Day marked," the Gulf Times (Qatar) reported on the celebration at the College of the North Atlantic Qatar, which trains nurses. The piece includes the ICN safe staffing theme, and includes an unremarkable quote from the College president. The piece also notes that the ICN has celebrated Florence Nightingale's birthday as International Nurses Day since 1971.

By far the strongest and most aggressive of these pieces about International Nurses Day was a short May 13 article in the Nation News (Barbados) that seemed to be based entirely on a speech celebrating the day by National Union of Public Workers president Walter Maloney. This piece does not involve songs or sweets. Instead, its headline is "'Give nurses better conditions.'" The first paragraph reads: "STRESS, LONG HOURS, heavy workloads, injury and poor relations with other professions are some of the factors which are causing the shortage of nurses in Barbados." The piece explains that Maloney stressed that the problems in nursing were "not just about money," but that poor working conditions could impair nurses' health and drive them from the profession:

A demoralised worker is not a productive worker and this is especially worrisome because of the type of work you are called upon to do. Nurses have a sense that they are not valued by the health care system for which they work extremely hard.

Maloney went on stress the importance of recognizing nurses' experience and giving them a greater voice in the health system, improving their management and promotional opportunities, and providing adequate workplace security, especially for community health nurses. He reportedly urged the government, employers, educators, and nurses to work together to create healthy nursing work environments and improve patient care: "It is quite clear to us that those persons responsible for running our health care system need to act, and act now, for not to create quality environments to attract new recruits and retain experienced nurses risk shortages that may endanger patients." This piece, which never even mentions the ICN safe staffing theme, strikes us as the most consistent with the theme itself--and the best tribute to Nightingale's legacy.

We thank the ICN and all three of the publications above for their coverage of International Nurses Day and safe nurse staffing.

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