Editorial: Hold on to our nurses

Nurses finally make an impact on the country’s fragile health system after decades of lurking behind medical specialists and consultants.

Nurses create this unprecedented impact on public health by dint of their diminishing presence in the Philippines.

In early May, the World Health Organization (WHO) removed the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic from its highest level of alert as a “public health emergency of international concern (HEIC)”.

The Department of Health (DOH) continues to advise the public to exercise caution and vigilance as the cases of Covid-19 have increased in the past weeks.

DOH officer-in-charge Mario Rosario Vergeire said in a May 9, 2023 report on Philstar.com that 96 percent of the recent Covid-19 cases are “mild, asymptomatic, or moderate,” putting the country’s healthcare utilization rate at “low risk.”

What long ails the country’s healthcare system re-emerges as the focus shifts from the Covid-19 pandemic to long-standing inadequacies that affect the delivery of health care services for persons who avoided seeking medical assistance at the height of the pandemic and now face the consequences of these postponements or delays.

Two persons electing surgery at different private hospitals in Cebu City could not be immediately scheduled because operating rooms (ORs) were solidly booked for the next weeks.

One patient who sought to reschedule a medical procedure was informed that she may have to settle for an evening slot because of the unavailability of facilities during peak hours.

Insiders say that more than a surge in patients electing for or needing procedures now that the pandemic is no longer an HEIC, it is the scarcity of specialized nurses to assist procedures that creates difficulties in scheduling.

Vergeire declared that the country requires 12 and 25 years to close the gap for the desired staffing of nurses and doctors in the country’s hospitals, reported Inquirer.net last May 4.

The DOH must lead in taking initiatives to improve the earning opportunities and work conditions of medical frontliners, especially with developed countries becoming more aggressive in their recruitment of nurses from the Philippines.

Melvin Miranda, president of the Philippine Nurses Association, pointed out in a March 3 article by the CBS News that high mortality in high-risk pregnancy cases may be attributed to poor access to adequate healthcare services, particularly in remote communities.

Miranda pointed out in the same article that even in urban centers, many hospitals assign nurses to monitor and manage patients that go beyond the ideal 1:5 or 1:7 ratio of nurse to patient in critical care, such as kidney and heart centers and intensive care units (ICUs).

Private caregivers are engaged by many families to ensure their patients are not neglected or subjected to human error or less than professional treatment.

The engagement of private caregivers is not an available option for everyone. Anecdotes about nurses resigning to work as private caregivers who are paid more than P1,000 per hour for an eight-hour shift to care for only one patient underscore the risks this arrangement poses on the social justice and sustainability of the healthcare system, which raises the costs and risks for those with limited means.

Why has the Philippines, regarded by international media as one of the top traditional exporters of health workers, not prepared for contingencies, particularly learning from the Covid-19 pandemic?

Ignoring the welfare of nurses and their families compromises the health and well-being of Filipinos, with and without means.

Instead of solely blaming the ruptures created by the the aggressive headhunting by developed countries for nurses already direly needed in their less developed home countries, the government and the private sector should plan and provide for the welfare and security of nurses, publicly hailed as essential but in actuality, perennially overlooked as they serve at the frontlines.