It's a bad time to have a global shortage of healthcare workers.
The world needs nurses. Especially these days. There’s the Covid pandemic, of course, which is pushing some people into hospitals. But there’s also some general trends, especially in richer countries like the UK, that are increasing healthcare demands. In general, people are living longer, getting fatter, and living unhealthier lifestyles than they were in the mid-twentieth century. However, the supply of nurses has not kept pace with this demand. Indeed, the world is about 6 million nurses short, according to the WHO. The UK started this year with 40,000 vacancies to fill, and that number is predicted to hit 100,000 within ten years.
There are a few ways countries could go about eradicating the gap. The first is to make nursing jobs more enticing, so more people are interested in taking up the gig. Traditional economic theory says that as jobs are fundamentally about swapping one source of value (labour) for another (money) the best way to attract job applicants is to increase wages.
It’s certainly true that many people consider higher salaries are a good thing, and also that nursing at the moment is usually a low-paid profession. In the UK, the average nurse salary is just over £24,000 while the average salary for all UK jobs is about £30k. Many nurses have cited low pay as a reason to quit their role. Upping NHS salaries would mean upping the NHS budget, which would probably require tax increases, but plenty of Brits would support this move.
However, money isn’t the only thing that motivates us. Studies have found that workers also prioritise things like how the work makes them feel and what general working conditions are like. On these kind of metrics, the UK seems to be doing a bad job. Nurses have spent years talking about a range of demotivating problems from long hours to not being given enough resources to do their job. Now the pandemic is making everything worse, by increasing both the pressure on healthcare workers and making many feel fundamentally unsafe (nurses make up 10 percent of all Covid-19 cases).
The UK government could try and improve all these things. But that will be expensive, difficult, and take a long time. An easier option for them could be to seek out nurses from abroad who may find the current conditions in the NHS preferable to working in their country of origin. Indeed, the UK is already doing this: 15 percent of its nurses were trained abroad. There are, however, a few problems with this approach. One is that a lot of the UK's foreign nurses come from the EU, and Brexit has made Britain much less desirable to them (5,000 EU nurses have already quit). Another is that recruiting lots of nurses from abroad does nothing to fix the global nurse shortage, and indeed makes the problem worse in the predominately-poorer countries these nurses are leaving.
Read our explainer on: why we go to work.