Healthcare’s unsung heroes often don’t have time even for a cup of tea

PT Jyothi Datta | Updated on January 04, 2020

Trained nurses and nursing students celebrate the WHO’s announcement of 2020 as the Year of the Nurse and Midwife, by lighting candles at Mananchira square in Kozhikode S Ramesh Kurup   -  S_RAMESHKURUP

The vital role played by nurses, midwives and ASHA workers needs to be appreciated

“I don't think I can meet you again, sorry,” wrote 28-year-old nurse Lini to her husband, as her health deteriorated. The heart-rending letter revealed a little recognised reality — the dangers nurses encounter on their daily rounds. Lini had handled patients during the Nipah virus outbreak in Kerala, finally succumbing to it. Lini’s letter may have struck a chord, but there are many Linis out there, unsung heroes of healthcare.

A regular day for them involves erratic work hours, sometimes abuse from patients or their families, unfair corporate practices and often times little time to even have a cup of tea, says Rince Joseph, who has been in the profession for 17 years.

Narrating struggles of nurses who had taken their life because of work-related unfairness or others who fell ill on the job, he says, nurses are at high risk as they are early responders when patients are brought into hospitals. They are exposed to communicable illnesses, tuberculosis, Hepatitis, HIV, etc. And despite the training and protection, a regular day at work exposes them to immense risk where the smallest of incidents could have the gravest of impact on the patient’s life and their own. “Nurses are busy with their patients, they don’t have time to think about themselves,” says Joseph, President with the United Nurses Association (Delhi/NCR), and yet they are treated with little dignity, he says, referring to practices where a nurse’s bag is checked when he or she leaves the hospital premise. An aspirant nurse takes a bank loan to study and get a job at a good hospital. But hospitals and patient families often treat nurses like they do not have a personal life or dignity, he says, pointing to inadequate facilities like changing rooms, for instance.

The World Health Organization has dedicated 2020 to the Nurse and Midwife. In India, this would include the Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) or health workers, whose work remains even less visible to the outside world. Same is the case with ward boys and girls, says Joseph.

Areas of concern

The healthcare landscape is evolving, as experts call for training nurses to take some non-critical, clinical load away from the doctor. There are initiatives where ASHA workers are given electronic gadgets to map malaria or diabetes in rural areas. And yet, certain core issues on remuneration and entitlements leave much to be desired.

Susana Barria of Public Services International points out that a nurse often prefers working at a Government hospital than a private one, as entry-level pay is better at about ₹45,000, as compared to about ₹15,000, and that too depending on the size of the institution.

There is a shortage of support staff, and the nurse to patient ratio at 1:20 in a government hospital does not compare well with international standards of 1:4. This adds to a nurse’s stress, leaving her demotivated, says Barria.

ASHA workers are important in healthcare systems unable to reach out to rural areas. They are given incentives, but don’t come under a standard wage regime. Besides, since they work in areas they hail from, they are often victims of the prevailing patriarchy as well. If some of these issues facing para-medical staff are addressed, says Barria, nurses may not find the need to go outside the country in search of greener pastures.

Published on January 04, 2020

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