The coronavirus global pandemic has brought sharp focus on the shortage of nurses and the health workforce the world over. Contrary to the long-standing notion that it represents a cost to be contained, in 2016 the United Nations High-Level Commission on Health Employment and Economic Growth published evidence that jobs and employment in health promote economic growth and increase the productivity of other sectors.
Investment in the health system and its workforce substantially contributes to inclusive economic growth (SDG 8), particularly through the employment and empowerment of women (SDG 5) and young people. Women account for 70% of the social and health care workforce globally, and nearly 90% of the nursing and midwifery workforce.
The Commission provided a rationale for investment in health and social sectors, and a framework on how that investment can expand education capacity to ensure a sustainable supply of health workers and transform their competencies to meet needs, producing a health workforce with the right skills to fill decent jobs in the right places for better health service delivery, and in sufficient numbers to avert the projected 18 million shortfall.
The nursing workforce, comprising nursing professionals and nursing associates, is the world’s largest single occupation in the health sector and is a foundation of the interprofessional health teams that deliver on the promise of health for all. Improvements in population health and well-being have been, and will continue to be, ably realized through the industry, innovation and inspiration of the nursing profession.
Nursing has existed for centuries and has evolved considerably since the birth 200 years ago of Florence Nightingale, considered the founder of modern nursing. Structured education, clinical standards and nurse professional associations emerged in the 1800s, progressively raising the quality, competencies and working conditions of the nursing profession.
The 1900s saw the growth of specializations and autonomy, along with stronger professional regulation to ensure public accountability and safety. The first international organization for health care professionals, founded in 1899 in America, was the International Council of Nurses.
Accelerating progress towards universal health coverage and achieving SDG 3 is possible by refocusing attention on the investment needs for the health workforce.