International Nurses Day was marked on 12 May to honour this group of selfless health professionals that forms the backbone of healthcare systems around the world. The theme for this year's celebration was "Nurses, a force for change – Improving health systems' resilience".
"The resilience of a health system relies largely on its human resources," explains Prof Anita van der Merwe, who heads the Division of Nursing at Stellenbosch University's Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS). "But as we know, there is a dire shortage of healthcare professionals in South Africa and elsewhere in the world."
She argues that although there is a renewed call to strengthen patient-centred care which tailors treatment and care according to the needs of the patient, staff shortages, environmental, equipment and supplies limitations often result in substandard service to the patient.
"Patient-centred care requires that nurses have enough support to be able to focus on the patient, but in reality they have too many other tasks that take them away from their patients and prevent them from having a meaningful relationship with empathy and compassion," says Van der Merwe.
"That's when nurses get labelled as being uncaring, but in actual fact they are overburdened, burned out and suffering moral distress."
The practice of task shifting has empowered nurses to perform tasks previously allocated to doctors, making certain services more widely available to patients. But at the same time, other tasks, such as data collection, administration and equipment procurement are also falling to nurses.
"It is a problem. Nurses are blamed when patients receive poor care, but often it is because they are doing other people's work," argues Prof Ethelwynn Stellenberg, Associated Professor in the Division of Nursing at the FMHS.
"We are always talking about the rights of the patient, but the nurse also has the right to nurse in an environment that is conducive to care for her patients. These rights are violated when the support structures are not in place and then often result in patient's right to care not being met," says Stellenberg.