A seat at the table for nurses and midwives

Recently I spoke to a global network of nurses and midwives from more than 800 organizations in 80 countries. They are all members the Nursing Now Challenge, a movement to empower early-career nurses and midwives as the health leaders of the future—as agents of change

It’s a movement I fervently believe in.

Nurses and midwives can and should play a lead role in addressing global public health threats, from antimicrobial resistance to air pollution to climate change. They can and should play a lead role in driving toward the World Health Organization’s goal of universal health coverage—a monumental task that requires more nurse-led clinics, specialist nurses, midwifery services, and nurses leading on primary health care, health promotion, and disease prevention.

Finally, nurses can and should play a lead role in advance the global health security agenda. We’ve been telling people for a long time that global pandemics were coming—and even now, after more than 6 million deaths from COVID worldwide, there’s a stunning lack of urgency around prevention and preparedness. We need the voices and efforts of nurses and midwives to push for local, regional, national, and international investment to be ready for the next inevitable outbreak.

As you see, the stakes could not be higher.

Nurses and midwives are perfectly poised to address all the threats I’ve listed. Their roles are centered on making sure people have the right care at the right time. They know how to meet people where they are. They model the human-centered care that is the promise and future of public health.

We need more nurses and midwives focused on primary and preventative health care at a population level; on getting public health messages to people who have vaccine hesitancy; and thinking about how we can deliver care better.

We also need nurses and midwives in leadership roles to help advance the health and wellness of their field. This is a critical issue for their individual quality of life but also the future of health care at large.

The world needs a workforce of healthy nurses and midwives. They have very tough jobs. Many nurses are exhausted physically and mentally because they’ve seen so much death and dying during this COVID-19 pandemic. They’ve seen friends and colleagues die. And the same thing holds true for midwives. People are retiring early or fleeing the field.

The context for this understandable but unfortunate exodus is striking. In 2020, the WHO’s State of the World’s Nursing Report recommended that countries educate and employ nearly 6 million more nurses to offset long-predicted shortages—and the pandemic has only made the situation more dire.

The International Council of Nurses is warning governments that due to an anticipated avalanche of resignations and retirement, the world will need 13 million more nurses by 2030.

So, we have a severe nursing workforce shortage. And as a result, those nurses who are left in the trenches are overworked and struggling to maintain their own health and well-being. It is difficult, if not impossible, to maintain a balanced life and to role model mental and physical fitness under such conditions.

If we raise up nurses and midwives, they can not only lift population health, but also advocate for their own profession, helping us to create a more positive and sustainable workspace for their fellow health care providers.

To position more nurses for a seat at the table, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health is launching a new Harvard Global Nursing Leadership Program with the African Union, Africa CDC, and our colleagues at the Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Graduate School of Education.

This program may strike many career nurses as odd. Why is Harvard getting involved with nursing? The answer is simple. We believe now, more than ever, nurses play a critical role in shaping global public health. We believe nurses are a pivotal solution to public health crises. We believe they are critical to global health security. We believe their leadership and advocacy matters.

Indeed, we believe that nurses’ involvement in developing public policy for disease prevention, health promotion, and population health is long past due and deeply required if we are to build a healthier, more resilient population and planet.

Nurses deserve a seat at the table.