• Nearly six million more nurses are needed to ensure healthcare standards rise again after the pandemic.
  • The World Health Organization says the need is most acute in poorer nations.
  • But advanced economies also face shortages in the next decade.
  • Investment in training and strengthening nurse leadership is key.
  • Nations must close the gender gap for nurses with better pay and employment rights.

The world needs to act now to avoid a nursing shortage.

That's the message from a World Health Organization (WHO) report which says that nearly 6 million more nurses will be needed by 2030 to deliver the higher standards of healthcare needed once the COVID-19 pandemic has passed.

Its State of the World’s Nursing report warns that a significant increase in recruitment and training is needed if we’re to achieve universal health coverage and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Train, don’t drain

Most of the 5.9 million new nurses will be needed in middle- and low-income nations. However, some developed nations will also require more still as those currently working in the profession get older.

Many countries are failing to train enough of their own nurses, the report says, and should stop covering shortfalls by recruiting nurses from other nations. One in eight nurses currently works in a country other than the one in which they were trained.

The total number of nurse graduates would need to increase by 8% per year, alongside capacity to employ and retain these new nurses, to address the shortage in all countries by 2030.

The report highlights Germany’s approach, which has involved ramping up domestic recruitment while supporting training and development for nurses in countries from which they have traditionally been recruited.

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Projected increase (to 2030) of nursing stock, by WHO region and by country income group.
Image: World Health Organization

Vital role

The report also calls on countries to adopt policies to close the gender pay gap in a profession where nine out of 10 workers are women, saying the world must “promote gender equity within the health workforce, and overcome the historical legacy that has undervalued nurses’ work, including through gender bias”.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

The World Economic Forum has been measuring gender gaps since 2006 in the annual Global Gender Gap Report.

The Global Gender Gap Report tracks progress towards closing gender gaps on a national level. To turn these insights into concrete action and national progress, we have developed the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerators model for public private collaboration.

These accelerators have been convened in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Panama and Peru in partnership with the InterAmerican Development Bank.

In 2019 Egypt became the first country in the Middle East and Africa to launch a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator. While more women than men are now enrolled in university, women represent only a little over a third of professional and technical workers in Egypt. Women who are in the workforce are also less likely to be paid the same as their male colleagues for equivalent work or to reach senior management roles.

France has become the second G20 country to launch a Gender Gap Accelerator, signalling that developed economies are also playing an important role in spearheading this approach to closing the gender gap.

In these countries CEOs and ministers are working together in a three-year time frame on policies that help to further close the economic gender gaps in their countries. This includes extended parental leave, subsidized childcare and removing unconscious bias in recruitment, retention and promotion practices.

If you are a business in one of the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator countries you can join the local membership base.

If you are a business or government in a country where we currently do not have a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator you can reach out to us to explore opportunities for setting one up.

Although most countries have formal organisations to oversee and regulate nursing, the WHO says the profession needs better leadership to reflect its vital role. It says nurses can play a key part in improving primary healthcare and increasing universal health coverage.

The role of government chief nursing officers is critical in making the case for investment in the nursing workforce.

Future leaders of the profession should be nurtured by development programmes for young nurses and in countries where the healthcare system has been undermined by conflict, governance and development structures must be rebuilt.

The report says all arms of government must support the development of the profession and regulation should be modernized. Nurses should be entitled to fair pay and working conditions to increase retention.

The WHO also recognizes the central role of nurses in delivering its Triple Billion targets of 1 billion more people benefitting from universal health coverage; 1 billion better protected from health emergencies; and 1 billion more people enjoying better health and well-being by 2023.

“The nursing workforce 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,” the report says.