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Expanded health service 'requires' 300 more nurses

Jesmond Sharples: "Nursing is a career to be considered, particularly for those who believe they have a contribution to make to mankind."

Jesmond Sharples: "Nursing is a career to be considered, particularly for those who believe they have a contribution to make to mankind."

An additional 300 nurses would be required to run Malta's upcoming "unprecedented expansion" of medical services, the director of nursing services in the Health Division, Jesmond Sharples, told The Times.

The division could not guarantee that the additional number of nurses would be on board this year, but a staggered approach would be adopted and it was hoped they would be available in a couple of years' time.

"We have never really recovered since the opening of the Karin Grech Hospital in the beginning of the 1980s, when staff at St Luke's Hospital was practically halved, although we were reaching an equilibrium recently," Mr Sharples said.

The migration would be carried out over a few months - not overnight! But the shorter the time taken, the better, because it would not make sense to provide a duplication of services over a lengthy period, he maintained.

A number of students - about 400 - are following nursing courses at the Institute of Health Care, but they would not be enough to sustain the health care services in Malta, including community services.

A marketing drive is, therefore, being launched to recruit nurses to the profession, he said, encouraging the uptake of nursing studies at the university next October.

Malta has more than 2,400 nurses in active service, and over the past 15 years, the IHC has educated over 1,300. But while the number of graduates continues to increase, there is still a strong demand for qualified nurses and midwives.

A number of nurses will be recruited through a call that will be published in the coming weeks, targeting the student nurses in their final year (over 100) at the IHC.

They have a job round the corner - as do those who join the nursing courses in the years to come, Mr Sharples said.

"The labour market is such that you can land a job within hours from graduating.

"Nursing is a career to be considered, particularly for those who believe they have a contribution to make to mankind. For those who want to do something worthwhile in life, it is a plausible option," he said.

"The government is also considering certain conditions to encourage women, or whoever, to return to work. The idea is to make it easier and more attractive for nurses out of service to resume their jobs. The Malta Union of Midwives and Nurses is engaged in talks with the Office of the Prime Minister to look into the possibility of breaking down certain barriers in the public service, such as the long-established practice of starting from scratch," said Mr Sharples.

"The whole set-up of the new hospital is fantastic and conducive to a better work environment, which would serve to keep employees happy," he believed.

Nursing is an interesting career pathway, he maintained, adding that the conditions of the state-of-the-art hospital and its attractive, hi-tech setting are an additional bonus. Being highly technological, it would make life easier for employees. One example was the fact that blood samples would be delivered to the laboratory through a pneumatic tube system whereby the number of the destination unit is keyed in and the item is sucked to it through a vacuum.

The hospital would also be going "paperless" in that clinical, medical and nursing notes would be on a network in the future, Mr Sharples highlighted.

Retirement constitutes a major problem in terms of the nursing shortage: The baby boomers, born in 1946, were about to retire, causing some sort of an exodus, Mr Sharples envisaged.

"Hopefully, with the extension of retirement age, seven per cent of the workforce would be saved. At 61, you have some experienced people, who may not necessarily work at the bedside, but can lend their expertise in management and be utilised in other ways that are suited to their physical capacity."

The MUMN was clamouring for early retirement on the grounds that the job was stressful, while emphasising that there are not enough nurses. Mr Sharples believed the proposal was contradictory.

"We cannot say we have an acute shortage of nurses and then fight for early retirement. From a management perspective, it does not make sense. You would be reducing the workforce by seven per cent, rather than injecting seven per cent into it. Twenty-five years of service would chop the workforce considerably when it is in dire need of more workers."

The migration process was unprecedented and a complex issue, with Mater Dei's 6,000 rooms and 250,000 pieces of equipment. Nurses, doctors and other health care professionals needed to be trained on the job to get familiar with their new surroundings and equipment, Mr Sharples said.

Trips to the new hospital were being organised on a daily basis for the staff, while about 300 employees were currently undergoing the last phase of training to be able to train others.

A call for expressions of interest has been issued for those who would like to work in a particular department of their choice to guarantee job satisfaction, as well as continuity of skills. Then it is up to the management to deploy in the best interest of the organisation and the individual workers.

Settling down would not be easy and is expected to be somewhat of a "jigsaw puzzle". As an example, Mr Sharples mentioned figuring out where the tablets, or other items were stored as one of the myriad details to be considered. Having said that, operational policies that facilitated standardisation across the whole hospital would be put in place.

Mr Sharples was, nevertheless, optimistic that the Health Division would rise to the challenge ahead, despite an element of apprehension, anxiety and fear of the unknown. "After all, on election day, we manage to take every patient out to vote in the space of 12 hours."

Meanwhile, "while management is trying to deal with current anxieties, unions may try to get leverage out of the situation to demand better conditions," he said.

Maltese society has two future challenges: To become more technologically advanced and more caring due to the ever-increasing elderly population.

"We cannot talk only of SmartCity, but we also need to talk about 'smart hospital', 'smart health care industry' and, most of all, 'smart health care professionals'."

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