Singapore needs more nurses amid Covid-19 pandemic and ageing population

Nursing jobs were the hardest PMET positions to fill, according to the Singapore Ministry of Manpower's 2020 report on job vacancies. - The Straits Times/ANN

SINGAPORE, Aug 1 (The Straits Times/ANN): Although they make up the largest professional group of healthcare workers here, Singapore still does not have enough nurses.

As at the end of last year, there were more than 42,000 nurses registered with the Singapore Nursing Board.

And as at 2019, there were about 5,500 nurses not in active practice.

Nursing jobs were the hardest PMET (professional, managerial, executive and technical) positions to fill, according to the Ministry of Manpower's 2020 report on job vacancies.

These jobs made up the biggest number of vacancies unfilled for at least six months last year.

Singapore General Hospital's (SGH) chief nurse Ng Gaik Nai said that with an ageing population, complex disease and advancement in care management, there is a demand for more nurses.

She said: "Nurses are also needed at the community level to educate residents on how to stay healthy... and to ultimately reduce the number of readmission cases."

She said that with upcoming facilities on the SGH campus, such as a new emergency medicine building and elective care centre, more nurses will be needed to fill roles there.

Nurse retention is also a concern, said Healthcare Services Employees' Union president K. Thanaletchimi.

The former Nominated MP said: "Due to the long working hours and the heavy demands of healthcare professionals... many of them leave the profession as they feel mentally burnt out, or are no longer able to cope with both work and personal commitments."

And with the Philippines recently suspending permits for nurses who want to work abroad, the shortage could worsen. Foreign nurses make up about one-third of the overall nursing workforce in Singapore.

Thomson Medical's director of nursing, Siti Hosier, said that recruiting nurses into the private sector has always been competitive. But the pandemic has made it more challenging as more nurses are joining vaccination and swab operations.

Private healthcare group IHH Healthcare Singapore says that half of its nursing workforce is made up of foreign nurses.

The healthcare group's director of nursing, Josephine Ong, said: "The pandemic has added further strain to the manpower shortage as our nurses were redeployed to help set up quarantine and community care facilities, vaccination and swabbing operations."

The group operates four hospitals here, including Mount Elizabeth Hospital. To help ease its nurses' workload, some paperwork and non-clinical tasks were handed over to other departments.

Similarly, at Farrer Park Hospital, screening duties and health declaration processes are handled by other employees so that the nurses can focus on caring for patients and do clinical work.

Since January, the IHH Singapore hospitals have hired more healthcare assistants, and next year, new patient care associate jobs will be created to support nurses.

Ong said that there are plans to use robotics and artificial intelligence to assist nurses with some clinical tasks.

"Working longer shifts is not the solution to cope with a shortage of nurses as they need adequate rest to do their best for patients," she emphasised.

Over the years, Singapore has been promoting nursing and trying to retain nurses through campaigns, recognition and awards, salary adjustments, scholarships and education opportunities.

The Government announced salary hikes of 5 per cent to 14 per cent for nurses from last month.

Currently, the median starting salary for a degree-holding registered nurse is about $3,500.

Associate Professor Elaine Siow from the nursing programme at the Singapore Institute of Technology said the pay hike could make nursing more comparable to other professions here, and help improve staff retention.

Singapore also aims to have up to 700 advanced practice nurses (APNs) who can prescribe medication for patients by 2030. As at May, just 57 of 294 of such highly skilled nurses had prescribing rights.

But existing programmes have helped to attract aspiring nurses.

Workforce Singapore's (WSG) nursing-related professional conversion programmes have attracted more than 1,500 mid-career local workers since 2003. - The Straits Times/ANN

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