For every 402 people in South Africa, there is only one registered nurse to see to them – and things are getting worse as nurses leave for other countries that pay higher salaries and have better working conditions.
According to figures by the South African Nursing Council, compiled at the end of 2015, Mpumalanga had the lowest rate of nurse to people distribution, with one registered nurse for every 603 people.
The province with the highest figure of nurse-to-person ratio was the Free State, with one nurse for every 349 people.
These figures are only the tip of the iceberg according to the Democratic Alliance, who received “reliable information” from a “senior confidential source who is part of the professional nursing community”.
South Africa has a shortage of 80 000 nurses, said the source.
This figure is almost double the initial reports of 44 780 which the health department reported in 2010.
“The consequence of this massive shortage is deeply compromised patient care. Research shows that a critical mass of professional nurses in hospitals reduces the risks of patients dying by 8%, and significantly cuts the incidence of urinary tract infections, gastro-intestinal bleeding, hospital acquired pneumonia, shock and cardiac arrests,” Dr Wilmot James of the DA said yesterday.
According to Sibongiseni Delihlazo, communications manager of the Democratic Nursing Organisation of South Africa, there are various factors which have been contributing to the loss of nurses in South Africa.
In the 2014 mid-term budget policy statement by former Minister of Finance Nhlanhla Nene, austerity measures were put in place for vacancies that were not filled for a long period and, as a result, were phased away. These included nursing positions.
Due to budgetary constraints, community service nurses (student nurses) who have completed their four years of training in public colleges and are funded by government) have to be placed in institutions by January 1.
“What we have observed is that more and more of these students are not absorbed in institutions, and they sit at home. Often the reason given is that there is not enough budget to pay them.
"In provinces like the Free State, most of these student nurses resort to standing at traffic lights begging for jobs,” Delihlazo said.
The closure of nursing training colleges has also strained the nursing fraternity.
“The population figures are growing. Before 1994 you had about eight nursing colleges in Gauteng alone. After 1994, we were left with only three colleges.
"In 2011, in his state of the nation address, President Jacob Zuma announced the intention to reopen the previously closed colleges. This has not happened,” Delihlazo said.
Working conditions for nurses are more challenging than ever.
“The few nurses who remain in facilities are crying about the shortage. Each does the work of three or four other nurses.
"They love the profession, but the conditions they work under, where they can’t even be expected to even take breaks during their 12-hour shifts, has made it a sour profession for them,” Delihlazo said.
Nurses are being offered better opportunities overseas.
The purpose of the occupation-specific dispensation was to improve the government’s ability to attract and retain skilled employees, through increased remuneration.
The dispensation that was agreed on in 2007 by the bargaining chamber was meant to be reviewed in 2012 to improve the salaries of nurses according to their experience and speciality.
“The matter is still an outstanding matter at the chamber because the government is not coming with a mandate to review it. While it prevented a lot of nurses from going abroad, it has since given way to an exodus,” Delihlazo said.