One hundred trained Indonesian nurses are due to arrive in Taiwan next year. Photo: iStock

It is more than a century since Florence Nightingale passed away peacefully at the age of 90, with her reputation as the founder of modern nursing eternally secured.

The health-care sector of the 21st century is one that the Lady of the Lamp would barely recognize. Advances in technology have revolutionized diagnostic capability, immeasurably improved treatment strategies, and – the ultimate goal of the medical profession – extended life-expectancy rates the world over.

And yet the role of the nursing profession in instigating this medical miracle has all too often been overlooked. Nightingale came to prominence in the mid-19th century as a beacon of hope for soldiers injured in the Crimean War, and warned at the time: “Unless we are making progress in our nursing every year, every month, every week, take my word for it – we are going back.”

Her prescient comments echo down the ages, and were seen as a call to action for delegates at the World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH) 2018, which took place this week in Doha, Qatar.

“Nursing and Universal Health Care Coverage” was one of the nine themes on the agenda at WISH 2018. Global experts assembled at the summit engaged in animated discussions on how to increase the profile of the nursing profession, and ways to transform nurses into health-care leaders.

Nurses have a unique perspective when it comes to observing advances in medical treatment, and in providing dedicated care to those who are suffering. It is therefore crucial that the health-care sector capitalizes on this unrivaled knowledge and develops pathways for nursing professionals to become leaders in the field.

The issue of gender imbalance within the health-care profession was a central element of discussions at WISH 2018 – particularly in regard to ways to influence perceptions of nursing.

Although women make up the majority of the workforce in the health-care sector, only 19% of hospital CEOs are female, and only 4% head up health-care companies. So why does the glass ceiling still exist in the 21st century, and how can we overcome it?

Currently, although women make up the majority of the workforce in the health-care sector, only 19% of hospital chief executive officers are female, and only 4% head up health-care companies. So why does the glass ceiling still exist in the 21st century, and how can we overcome it? This will be a challenging task, but an achievable one if all stakeholders join in the effort.

According to a 2017 survey by Rock Health of more than 300 women in the health-care industry, nearly half (45.4%) of respondents believed it would take 25 or more years until gender parity is achieved in the workplace, while only 7.5% said it would happen in the next five years. Worryingly, 16.1% of those surveyed predicted that gender parity would never be accomplished.

This year’s summit attempted to address these concerns through the formation of the WISH Women’s Circle. Comprising female CEOs and industry leaders, the forum has been assembled to promote the advancement of women in healthcare leadership roles – and nursing is a key area of focus.

Gender imbalance is clearly a serious issue within the medical profession and, in many ways, it is aggravated by the traditional viewpoint that doctors should be male and nurses should be female. Part of the mission of the WISH Women’s Circle  – and other initiatives at this year’s summit – is to expose this perception as a myth.

On a global level, only around 10% of nurses are male, although there are exceptions – Iran, for example, where the figure is closer to 25%. WISH 2018 attempted to assess the reasons for such a disparity through a discussion titled “What Can Be Done about the Lack of Men in Nursing Globally?”

According to moderator Steve Ford, editor of Nursing Times, gender disparity in nursing is indicative of societal attitudes that have not moved with the times.

“In an era when women are at the forefront of discovery, innovation and leadership, the nursing profession has been slow to embrace gender equality,” Ford said. “And while there are signs that attitudes are changing, our panelists agree that more needs to be done to increase male representation in what is an extremely rewarding profession and – by extension – to facilitate the transition of women from nurses to industry leaders.”

Lord Nigel Crisp was chairman of the Research Forum on Nursing and Universal Health Care at WISH 2018. He believes that wholesale improvements are required within the industry, together with a holistic approach, in order to alter perceptions of the nursing profession.

“Investment is needed in nursing and midwifery, as well as effective legislation, regulation, education and employment practices,” he said. “There also needs to be a fundamental shift in policy at a global level to recognize what nurses and midwives can achieve if enabled to do so.”

The WISH organization, alongside other health-care stakeholders, is working tirelessly to promote nursing in Qatar and beyond. One of its major priorities is to increase the number of local people choosing the profession as a vocation.

There is a recognition that part of this process involves influencing societal attitudes – a cause that Florence Nightingale, the Lady with the Lamp, would doubtless have approved of.

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Sultana Afdhal

Sultana Afdhal is the CEO of World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH).