President of nursing association talks second wave of Covid-19
This year marks the 200th birthday of Florence Nightingale.
While she was alive, Nightingale was nicknamed the “Lady with the Lamp," a name she earned during the Crimean War because she would tirelessly wander the hospital hallways at night, taking care of the countless soldiers and victims of the war. Patients would glimpse the glow of the lamp as she passed by.
Now, 200 years later in May 2020, much has changed. Nurses no longer carry lamps. They are no longer wearing just simple aprons either.
Countries are also waging a different war: the war against the coronavirus.
And although nurses wander the hallways decked out in protective gear, latex gloves and goggles, they are no different from Florence Nightingale at heart: Filled with concern and compassion for their patients, they are risking their lives fighting on the frontlines against the coronavirus.
The JoongAng Ilbo interviewed Shin Kyung-rim, president of the Korean Nurses Association. The organization was created to protect nurses’ rights, sustain the quality of nursing and educating the public.
In the interview, Shin explains her opinions on whether Korea is equipped to handle a second spike in infections and what the public and government can do to help nurses and doctors.
Below are edited excerpts of the interview.
Q. The role of nurses in this coronavirus pandemic has been huge.
A. Naturally, in times of virus pandemics or wars, the role that nurses play becomes especially important. Whether we are talking intensive care units, diagnostic testing rooms, hospital wards or community treatment centers — essentially makeshift hospitals reserved for infected patients — in times of pandemic, you will see nurses in protective body suits scrambling through the halls, fighting against the virus to the best of their ability. When I saw the waves of nurses offering their help as volunteer workers, I was moved.
In March alone, 3,959 nurses volunteered to work for free. This is roughly 2 percent of 210,000 employed nurses throughout the whole country. Ranging from the fledgling nurse who just earned her license to the veteran nurse who retired a long time ago, the nurses were from a wide range of backgrounds. There was even a recently married nurse who put her honeymoon plans on hold to help out on the scene.
Truly, it was this 2 percent that carried the nation on its back. You could call it a small miracle.
What were some major obstacles that nurses had to overcome?
In the initial stages of the outbreak, there was a shortage of masks, thermometers, protective gear and ventilators. There was also an issue with communication. Different hospitals have different systems to keep communication between nurses smooth. Since nurses were dispatched across the entire country, it took some of the nurses some time to relearn the system.
Also, the central government was not all too familiar with ensuring that the right nurses are dispatched to the right time at the right location.
But most of all, we only had a handful of nurses taking care of a large number of patients. Fatigue became a major issue, and soon, even the nurses themselves started to get infected. I was heartbroken while watching all of this happen. The problem is that the nurses who were confirmed to be infected had to bear the costs entirely by themselves.
Some form of compensation, whether financial or something that helps increase their reputation, is required.
What can we do to prevent a second spike in infections?
We can no longer rely on a system built on the the sacrifices of nurses and doctors. This was only a temporary solution. With the system that we have now, if we do not have nurses and doctors volunteering, we cannot successfully respond to a second spike of infections.
We have to establish a new system that can operate without volunteers. It is especially important to train and educate more nurses specializing in dealing with infectious diseases, and use these nurses whenever an outbreak occurs.
Medical facilities have many patients who have weak immune systems. A virus outbreak is especially dangerous for these patients. But we do not have enough nurses specializing in infectious diseases who can respond efficiently to the outbreak.
Medical staff working in public hospitals must be educated on how to respond to an outbreak of infectious diseases [in preparation for a future outbreak]. And I am referring to all hospital employees — not just nurses and doctors.
If we can properly educate even just the employees working in public and red-cross hospitals, we should be able to substantially increase our ability to combat an outbreak, should another one occur. A stronger recruitment system is required to build this kind of system.
What can we do to help the nurses?
Logical and fair compensation [whether financial or something that helps them with their reputation] is important. Even though a nurse may initially volunteer with a mindset of sacrifice and charity, with no reward system in place, it is not going to last forever. Eventually, the nurse will feel a great sense of deprivation.
The gap in compensation between volunteering nurses and employed nurses aggravates this issue. Both nurses work late into the night. Both nurses give their hearts and souls while taking care of patients. But there is a gap in their compensation, and this cannot be allowed to happen.
There also needs to be some measure in place to oversee nurses’ psychological health. Patients have a hard time undergoing treatment in isolated wards. But nurses need to work in these isolated wards, taking care of the patients, dressed in protective gear.
Currently, the association is working on creating consulting sessions, workshops, and guidebooks to help nurses with emotional health.
Everyone, including patients who survived the coronavirus, are thanking the medical staff through the #thanks campaign, where they post videos of themselves expressing their gratitude.
It may not seem like much, but it is a huge source of emotional strength for us. To us, this is all proof that we have saved lives, and this fact will remain in our memories.
To everyone out there, I want to take this opportunity to thank you for all this support and encouragement.
However, the coronavirus situation is not resolved yet. I hope that everyone will still follow the necessary prevention measures until the problem is completely solved.
What issues are priorities for the association?
Our first priority is improving working conditions for the nurses. As of now, nurses are suffering under borderline murderous labor conditions.
Unless the government does something about this, nurses will not last long working in the industry. The necessary working conditions for nurses are clearly stated under medical law, but the punishments for breaking these conditions are weak.
Excluding large-scale hospitals, most hospitals do not follow these laws. They all have the attitude of "let’s just pay the penalty and ignore the laws."
According to data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Korea has one of the greatest growths in the nursing industry because so many new nurses are joining. But when we consider the number of nurses currently employed and working, we have only one-third the international average.
Half of the new nurse hires are unable to endure the working conditions and change careers within a year.
In order to solve this problem, we need to make new laws regarding the working conditions for nurses, in addition to the ones that have existed since 1951. A new branch has to be created within the Ministry of Health and Welfare of Korea as well, one that oversees nursing laws.
In Korea, nurses make up 67 percent of all medical personnel, and the fact that we do not have this branch yet is embarrassing. Currently, there is a task force team in charge of overseeing all laws and policies regarding nurses, but we need to make this a formal institution.
BY CHOI EUN-HYE, LEE ANDREW [email@example.com]