Nurses at risk

The world is gripped by the astonishing spread of the dreaded Ebola virus, a disease that has claimed more than four thousand lives across Africa, with infected patients in Spain and the United States.

Among those infected were two American nurses who helped care for Liberian national Thomas Eric Duncan who died Oct. 8 at the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, Texas. Amber Vinson took a commercial flight from Cleveland to Dallas, causing medical authorities and other agencies to work together in tracking her movements prior to confirmation of her disease. Another nurse, Nina Pham, has since been transferred to another hospital in Washington D.C.

Here in the Philippines, fears about the country’s readiness in dealing with Ebola remain high despite the holding of a health summit to tackle such concerns. After all, we are not exactly known for efficient government hospitals with complete staff and equipment. Sadly, the opposite is true.

Our nurses, acclaimed the world over for their tenacity, compassion, and fidelity to the oath, are among the most exploited workers in the country. A short-term employment program of the Department of Health known as “RN Heals” pays below the prescribed minimum wage for the nurses it deploys to remote towns.

Data shows that we are exporting more nurses than we employ, and here the facts are quite startling. Worldwide, based on the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration database, we have 177,414 overseas-based nurses.

In comparison, there are only 38,488 nurses employed in the Philippines according to the National Database of Human Resources for Health Information System. As of 2013, only 5,000 nurses have been employed in public facilities in our country. This translates to only 0.4 nurses per 10,000 Filipinos, and here, we speak only of the nurses. What more about other trained medical personnel including doctors and paramedics?

The onslaught of the Ebola virus will hopefully prod our top officials including legislators to take a more serious look into our public health programs. Certainly, a few medical missions here and there will not plug those yawning gaps that are evident from primary to tertiary care.

I remember when thugs who entered an Internet gaming café shot my nephew, Carlo. His friends had to rush him to the East Avenue Medical Center where a doctor pulled out the bullets from Carlo’s body without anesthesia. My sister-in-law, Dolly, who was a former nurse, had to remind the doctor to give Carlo an anti-tetanus shot. The doctor asked Dolly, if she brought the vaccine with her. We had to rush out to buy the anti-tetanus vial.

I am sure there are other horror stories as well, especially from our brothers and sisters in rural towns where public hospitals and barangay health clinics are miles away. In my coastal hometown of Hagonoy, Bulacan, we know of patients who have to be transported by boat and then unto a tricycle for travel from Hagonoy to Malolos where the provincial hospital is.

Our nonchalance approach to public health care is a grave injustice considering that our population now at 100 million continues to grow, adding to the demand for basic health programs at the grassroots level. The best investment that government can make is in the better health of its constituents. We can start by addressing the needs of our nurses and doctors, raising their salaries so that our government hospitals and barangay health clinics can benefit from their experience.

How ironic that we continue to produce nursing graduates for world-class hospitals around the world but are unable to employ the best for our people. To keep them here, we have to double their compensation, provide them with the right training and equipment, and reduce the hazards that they face. Our nurses deserve better, and so do we. (Send comments to

Author: Susan Ople

Susan "Toots" Ople is the President of the Blas F. Ople Policy and Training Institute. She's an OFW and labor advocate based in the Philippines.

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