Nurses are a vital part of a robust healthcare framework and South Africa has a dire need to address the critical shortage of qualified nurses in the private and public sector. This relies on improved investment into nurses training colleges and addressing the negative perceptions around the remuneration of South African nurses.

This is according to Graham Anderson, Principal Officer of Profmed, the medical scheme catering exclusively to graduate professionals, who ahead of International Nurses Day on May 12, says the situation is very concerning. “Figures from trade union Solidarity in 2011 reported that South Africa had at most 462 nurses for every 100 000 residents compared with 1 090 in Australia, with the actual figure likely to be lower as many registered nurses actually work abroad.

“This problem is two-fold. Firstly, the negative perception of the remuneration of nurses is causing qualified nurses to seek better employment conditions abroad. Secondly, the lack of places available at government-funded nursing colleges is hampering efforts to produce the required number of qualified nurses needed for the industry to function efficiently. To make matters worse, both these issues are aggravating each other,” he says.

According to Anderson, the shortage of sufficiently qualified nursing staff has resulted in an increase in the working hours required by those nurses employed in the system. “The fact is that there are simply not enough trained nurses and in order to keep hospitals functioning, nurses are required to work extremely long shifts. Furthermore, because many of these nurses are not fully or sufficiently qualified in the field, there is a mismatch between their salary and job expectations and the reality of the position they get placed in,” says Anderson.

Anderson says it is important to clarify the misconception that all nurses get paid the same amount – especially in response to messages during the recent strikes,  which implied that all nurses were remunerated between R8000 – R14 000 per month.

“Nursing salaries are hugely dependent on the individual’s qualifications. A nurse aid, for example, is someone who has done a six week course in nursing training and therefore is not as qualified as a staff nurse who would have done a year’s worth of training and earns around R20 000 per month.

On the other hand, a registered nurse would have a three year diploma in nursing coupled with a year’s practical training. A nurse qualified to work in ICU and High Care will have qualifications over and above those of a registered nurse and can earn up to R32 000 per month,” explains Anderson.

Having said that, Anderson notes that many private hospitals are doing well by yielding profitable margins which are not always passed on to the staff and other stakeholders who contribute to the success of the organisation.  “This creates discontent in the industry, which can gather momentum and manifest itself in the form of strikes both in the public and private sector,” he says.

Anderson says in order to prevent this kind of discontent, the industry must realise the importance not only of adequately training and rewarding hospital staff, but also effectively communicating accurate information regarding the relationship between these two issues.

“Nursing staff form the backbone of government’s healthcare commitments and are especially necessary to the success of its campaigns to address issues like TB and HIV/AIDS related death, child mortality, immunization, environmental health and other communicable and non-communicable diseases.

“It is crucial for the sustainability of our healthcare system that nurses are recognised for the levels of service they are expected to perform by being properly remunerated and offered further opportunities in training that would help them perform the tasks the healthcare industry is desperately in need of,” concludes Anderson. 

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