Nursing headache needs quick relief

Association of Private Hospitals Malaysia president Datuk Dr Kuljit Singh says we are not asking for an indefinite window to recruit foreign nurses but we need the time for students in nursing schools to be trained and in time, take over. He adds that with more nurses, we can expand existing hospitals and build new ones. Surely that is good for the economy.

MALAYSIA’S nurse shortage is dire. A few years down the road, private hospitals will need to turn away patients even if they can pay or have health insurance. Government hospitals may not be the best solution, since they too are experiencing nurse shortages.

Private hospitals in Malaysia will need 9,000 nurses over the next five years to meet current and future needs when new hospitals are built or existing hospitals expand.

How did we come to this? The stress and long and irregular hours during the Covid-19 pandemic took its toll on nurses. Some left to work in other industries such as beauty and wellness where their skills and knowledge can come in handy. After the borders reopened, many nurses left to work abroad for better pay.

Nursing schools also saw lower intakes during the pandemic and while intakes may rise, there will always be challenges to attract students to what is ultimately a calling to serve.

There is a nurse shortage throughout the world, not only in Malaysia. A key discussion point in medical conferences around the globe is the shortage of nurses.

Technology adoption is often cited during these discussions as a way to solve this problem. However, despite systems upgrades that have made processes more efficient, it hasn’t replaced some of the nurses’ tasks.

It may come in time, such as AI-powered robots to send or file documents or even to collect blood and urine samples. This is expensive to implement and private hospitals need to answer to their shareholders.

Under the Health Ministry’s general requirement, which was last updated in October 2016, private hospitals are required to have a nurse staffing master plan. There is a ratio of number of nurses and personal aides to number of patients, with a further requirement that 45% are student nurses.

While there are other requirements in terms of nursing staff, suffice it to say that things won’t get better any time soon.

However, there is a way forward to ensure there are enough nurses and patients get appropriate care as well as the waiting lines snaking into private hospitals are shortened.

Expedite the recruitment of qualified foreign nurses to quickly fill up the shortage in private hospitals.

Former Health Minister Dr Zaliha Mustafa approved the recruitment of foreign nurses for one year from November 2023 but the move has been stymied by red tape and bureaucratic entanglements.

It is understandable that procedures must go by the book but the shortage is critical. Private hospitals have people on the waiting list who are referred for admission on the basis that they are insured, have an employer’s guarantee letter or can pay. Imagine paying for healthcare insurance every month but being made to wait for a bed to be available.

We are on the verge of getting our first batch of foreign nurses but we are now told there must be proof Malaysian nurses will not be deprived of opportunities.

There must be an earnest campaign to recruit locals first. There was even a suggestion for a joint roadshow with a government agency. What many in government must comprehend is that we would rather recruit locals and that getting foreign nurses is a stopgap measure to help our own nurses cope with the surge in patients.

There is also the need to address the belief that foreign nurses who work in Malaysia must have post- basic qualifications. This has been a longstanding Health Ministry requirement.

What private hospitals need are nurses with the basic qualification. We also have an established system of post-basic training in the country, where we train nurses as specialists who are then accredited. However, this training takes time but, in the meantime, there are patients to treat and care for.

The window to recruit foreign nurses closes in October but there has been no urgency to address the issues pertaining to their recruitment.

People who are sick or in pain don’t have the luxury of time. We shouldn’t allow the situation to worsen before trying to expedite measures. The time to act is now.

The government should appoint one agency to coordinate all matters relating to the recruitment.

We are not asking for an indefinite window to recruit foreign nurses but we need the time for students in nursing schools to be trained and in time, take over.

With more nurses, we can also expand existing hospitals and build new ones. Surely that is good for the economy.

This article first appeared in Star Biz7 weekly edition.

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