I am privileged to be the President of the Council of International Neonatal Nurses, a global organization whose members care for one of the most vulnerable groups in our society, the small or sick newborn. Neonatal nursing is a small specialty in the scale of nursing roles; however it impacts the entire lifespan and neonatal nurses are vital in the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals to decrease neonatal mortality and morbidity. The board of COINN, has directors from all aspects of neonatal nursing; academia, clinical nurses; educators; managers and researcher and with colleagues and parents, we have just published the first global book on neonatal nursing: Neonatal Nursing: A Global Perspective.
As neonatal nurse leaders, one of our key roles is to advocate and ensure that those caring for the small or sick newborn and for their families have the education, skills, resources and support to provide quality care. Evidence shows, this decreases mortality and improves morbidity. To ensure policies, programs and resources are pertinent to nurses, they must be written by nurses and nurses must have a seat at any policy table, local, national and global.
I spoke at a conference a few years ago, where I was also one of the conference organizers. I met a lovely young neonatal nurse and we got talking. When I asked her what she did; she said, “I am just a nurse”. So many nurses still undervalue their role and their skills. “Just a nurse” – how many people go to work and literally have life’s in their hands every day, who can cause death or disability by getting a calculation wrong or not ensuring they have washed their hands. For a neonatal nurse, a miscalculation in medications by even a minute amount in a 600g baby can make the difference between life and death or permanent disability. Never – are we “just a nurse”.
Increasingly since the pandemic began, the role of nurses and midwives have been highlighted and portrayed in the media, depicting us as “angels”. Yet we were always there, always caring but mostly undervalued and invisible except to the few who needed our skills. Now, however, the pandemic has shown the necessity of a strong nursing workforce and has also exposed the great weakness of the health systems in most countries and the lack of investment in human resources for health. I work in a tertiary neonatal unit with the most passionate and committed neonatal nurses but like so many now, we are all so tired. I witness daily the challenges of staff shortages so severe that nurses have been deployed from their positions to fill roles they are not confident to work in. Many of our colleagues are leaving or contemplating leaving our profession and this is mirrored around the world.
This impact of the pandemic on nurses and midwives is of such concern that all governments need to listen and work with leaders in nursing and midwifery to protect the rights of nurses and midwives and ensure the sustainability of the workforce. Ultimately without nurses and midwives there will be no healthcare system and this will affect us all.
About the author
Dr Karen Walker (Phd, MN BAppsc RGN RSCN) is the current President, Council of International Neonatal Nurses, Inc. (COINN), a Clinical Associate Professor with the University of Sydney and the Neonatal Clinical Nurse Consultant at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney, Australia. She is an honorary research fellow with the George Institute for Global Health and the current President of the Council of International Neonatal Nurses. She is past president of the Australian College of Neonatal Nurses, a founding member of the Alliance for Global Neonatal Nurses (ALLIGN) and a board member of the Global Alliance for Newborn Care (GLANCE), a parent led global organisation. She worked with the World Health Organisation developing a road-map on Human Resources for Health: Strategies for improving neonatal care capacity in facility settings in low- and middle-income countries and is the co-chair of the Knowledge and Evidence working group of the Partnership for Maternal Newborn Child and Adolescent Health (PMNCH). She is also working on the revision of the WHO/UNICEF Every Newborn Action Plan and education modules for the WHO Care of the small and sick newborn course. Karen has published widely and is an invited national and international speaker.