North-West University: Nurse Survey Uncovers Disturbing Trends in South African Healthcare

Nurses should be celebrated for countless reasons. They play a crucial role in the healthcare system and touch the lives of individuals and communities in profound ways.

Nurses Day, observed annually on 12 May, commemorates the anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing. This year, amidst the ongoing global health crisis, the significance of nurses and the challenges they face are more evident than ever.

Nurses play a vital role in providing compassionate care, often serving as the frontline warriors in times of crisis. “From administering treatments and medications to offering emotional support and comfort, nurses fulfil multifaceted roles essential to the well-being of patients and communities,” says Prof Siedine Coetzee from the North-West University’s (NWU’s) School of Nursing Science.

In a recent study conducted across South Africa, nurses from both public and private sectors opened up about their experiences, shedding light on important issues within the healthcare system. The survey, covering 143 hospitals across all nine provinces and involving 4 554 nurses, aimed to understand nurse outcomes, quality of care, and patient safety.

The findings revealed significant disparities between nurses working in the private and public sectors. Nearly half of the respondents hailed from each sector, and data collection methods were tailored to suit the resources available. While online surveys were feasible for the private sector, in-person data collection was necessary for public sector nurses due to limited resources.

Among the concerning revelations, job dissatisfaction emerged as a prevalent issue, with around one third of nurses expressing discontent concerning wages, recognition and educational opportunities. A substantial number of nurses also expressed their intention to leave their current positions, with some even considering leaving the nursing profession altogether.

However, Prof Coetzee says despite this overall dissatisfaction towards their job, it is important to note that the majority of nurses indicated that they loved being a nurse. “Overall, they were satisfied with their career choices, and the dissatisfaction they expressed is only related to the under-resourced practice environment they are forced to work in.”

She adds that the toll of the profession on nurses’ well-being was evident, with high levels of burnout and moderate levels of compassion fatigue reported, especially in the public sector.

The survey further revealed that the impact of Covid-19 on nurse outcomes and the healthcare environment was profound. Resource constraints, staffing shortages and equipment inadequacies were exacerbated, with over half of the nurses rating the practice environment as poor. Public sector nurses, in particular, faced higher incidences of workplace violence and a greater reliance on temporary staff.

Despite these challenges, nurses generally rated the quality of patient care and safety as good to excellent. However, concerns lingered regarding management responsiveness to patient issues and the lack of support for nurses involved in safety incidents.

The study’s findings echo previous research, highlighting the urgent need to address systemic issues within the healthcare system. Improving the practice environment, enhancing working conditions, providing competitive salaries and incentives, recognising the contributions of nurses, and facilitating career advancement and educational opportunities are essential steps to ensure the well-being of healthcare professionals and the delivery of quality care.

The insights garnered from this survey serve as a call to action for stakeholders to prioritise the welfare of nurses and strengthen the resilience of the healthcare workforce in South Africa.

“By addressing these challenges, we can create a more supportive and sustainable healthcare system for nurses and patients,” says Prof Coetzee.

“The main focus of interventions should be on nurse leadership. My research has shown that regardless of the practice environment, even in healthcare institutions situated in the most rural areas of South Africa with the least resources, it is the nurse leader that makes all the difference to nursing personnel’s health and wellbeing.”

She adds that nurses should be celebrated for their unwavering commitment to compassionate care, invaluable contributions to healthcare, and embodiment of the highest ideals of professionalism and humanity.

Prof Coetzee challenges each citizen to consider the great contribution of nurses to our country, and to thank at least one nurse for her service every day, because these small acts of appreciation and recognition from society will positively change the heartbeat of the nursing profession.