South Africa’s dwindling nursing skills

“The pandemic very clearly highlighted the crucial role that nurses play in the frontline of healthcare, and how important they are in ensuring that patients have access to quality health services and disease prevention, management and education. However, a combination of factors is stymieing attempts to grow our nursing capabilities and skills – from changes in the nurse training curriculum, limitations of and delays in the accreditation of training facilities, poor working conditions and workplace safety, lack of equipment and resources, low remuneration by global standards, the regulatory uncertainty around NHI, changing social dynamics which has seen declining nursing recruits, as well as the significant mental health deterioration that nurses have battled for two years of being on the frontline of the pandemic. Add to this the fact that we have a significant number of experienced nurses heading for retirement age without the commensurate follow through of new nursing talent coming through, and we have the makings of a serious crisis,” warns Paul Cox, Managing Director at the Essential Group of Companies including health insurance provider, EssentialMED.

“Making matters worse, South Africa’s nurses are in huge demand in many first world countries that suffer the same skills shortages. These countries offer significantly higher pay and better working and living conditions to attract talent to their shores. This is a significant risk as South Africa is losing some of its most experienced nurses and healthcare workers to emigration, and with it we lose vast amounts of institutional knowledge, specialisation, experience, training investment and mentoring and training skills,” he adds.

Data published by the South African Nursing Council (SANC) in 2021 shows that the country has a nursing staff contingent of one nurse to 213 patients – the World Health Organisation recommends a ratio of 1 nurse to 5 patients in a general hospital. While there are currently around 280,000 nurses in active employment and a further 21 000 nurses in training, the 2030 Human Resources for Health Strategy projects a shortage of 34 000 nurses in primary healthcare by 2025 if nothing is done to attract new talent to the nursing sector. According to SANC’s 2020 statistics, the ageing population of South Africa’s nursing population is another looming crisis. Its statistics show that less than a third of the registered nurses and midwives are under the age of 40, while 47% of registered nurses will have retired within the next 15 years. Primary healthcare will take a big hit given the important role of nurses in primary healthcare delivery, and TB, HIV and diabetes management programmes are likely to falter, with patients in remote and rural areas impacted the most. 

Perplexingly, despite these serious skills shortages and looming crisis, nurses never made it onto the Critical Skills List released by the Department of Home Affairs at the end of February 2022, despite the huge demands that Government’s drive to NHI will make on already stretched and overburdened healthcare human resources.

“The implications of the current skills shortages and deteriorating working and safety conditions, notably in the public sector which takes care of more than 80% of the population, are plain to see. We already have a situation where healthcare facilities are struggling to fill posts – there are some 21,000 specialist medical personnel posts vacant across all provinces and which the Department of Health has thus far been unable to fill. What more then will the implications be for healthcare delivery under the proposed universal healthcare system of NHI? The Department of Health has acknowledged that the NHI will need skilled personnel to function not only across healthcare professionals, but general skilled human resources to underpin the health system. Right now, even the most fundamental of primary care delivery is in crisis due to skills shortages, exacerbated by the deleterious state of many public healthcare facilities and regular medicine stock-outs. More skilled and experienced nursing professionals are heading offshore, and at the same time, the sector is struggling to attract and train new nursing recruits to a profession and working environment that are increasingly unattractive to young South Africans. The planned introduction of the National Health Insurance scheme adds further grist to the wheel, with industry experts warning of a mass exodus of healthcare skills due to the valid concerns around the lack of financial and operational clarity of the plan,” adds Cox.

The current and future dwindling nurse staffing levels are a serious threat to patient health, safety and quality of care. Equally so to the health and safety of nurses due to increasing pressure on the remaining workforce to meet ever growing healthcare needs, fatigue and burnout, mental health issues and deteriorating work conditions. Poor resource allocation and poor maintenance of healthcare facilities need to be urgently addressed, and there needs to be the political will to dramatically improve the working conditions of the nurses who form the backbone of healthcare delivery. It is crucial that both public and private sector stakeholders collaborate to help bridge the skills challenges. A major acceleration of training is needed, and to do this it’s essential to fast-track the new education requirements and processes and accredit more nurse training colleges, allowing the private sector to contribute to closing the skills gap. 

“Nurses are the single largest group of healthcare providers in our country representing 56% of all healthcare providers. The performance of our healthcare system – both public and private - is dependent on the quality of care provided by these professionals. Nurses are central to addressing the complex burden of disease, achieving the primary healthcare (PHC) approach as purported under universal health coverage, as well as improving health system performance across both the public and private healthcare sectors. The pandemic has shown unequivocally the need to value our nurses, to invest in nursing, resolve the nursing education challenges as a matter of priority, as well as address their working conditions, remuneration, practice environment, resources, management and leadership. Without a strong, skilled and growing nursing profession, any semblance of NHI and universal health coverage success in South Africa is questionable,” concludes Cox.