Have you ever thought about what would happen if suddenly, one day, there were no more nurses? You are one of around 20 million nurses in the world who keep the wheels of health services turning and who make a huge impact on the health of individuals and communities every day. Definitely, a reason for the annual celebration and special recognition during Nurses Week which culminates in International Nurses Day (IND) on May 12. During special ceremonies across the world we are however also called on to re-commit to our core value of caring and to reflect on how we can use our knowledge, voice, skills and experience to an even greater extent to meet the needs of our patients and communities.

The International Council of Nurses (ICN) first introduced the annual celebration of Nurses Day on May 12 in 1965. This day is the anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing. An annual national nurse’ week, culminating on this day, was officially declared in the USA in 1974 and in Canada in 1985.

Every year the ICN chooses a special theme for IND and this year it is Nurses: A Voice to Lead, Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The two-fold purpose of this theme is first, to make nurses aware of the SDG’s and, second, to bring to the public’s attention the significant contribution nurses are already making towards achieving these goals.

Nurses and the SDGs

In 2015, to replace the previous Millennium Development goals, the United Nations adopted the 17 SDGs for 2030. The aim of these wide-ranging goals is to end poverty, protect the environment, and ensure prosperity for all. To achieve these goals requires governments, the private sector, communities, as well as individuals to all do their part.

Nurses’ contribution is central to SDG 3: ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all through universal health coverage.  However, nurses can also have a powerful influence on all of the other SDGs. Through our daily experiences, we understand better than most that health is determined as much, or more, by factors within society than the availability of health services. These social determinants of health include the availability of economic resources, education, gender roles, the environment, agriculture and technology, and cultural influences on lifestyle choices.

The ICN Guidance Pack for IND2017 is a valuable resource explaining nursing’s links to the SDGs and giving direction to what nurses can do. It also contains various inspiring case studies of where nurses have taken the lead in bringing about positive change from improving nutrition and sanitation in their communities, to addressing gender inequalities to combat HIV infection, finding innovative staffing solutions, and breaking legislative barriers to extended roles for nurses.

What can you do towards the SDGs?

Does this mean that while we as nurses are already overworked and underpaid we should work even harder to help save the world? Not at all!

The health and well-being of people and populations can be improved on many levels, from clinical practice situations to community, national and international levels. Each of us is aware of those things in our own settings and communities that are not right, or that can be improved. We can use our leadership skills, knowledge, insights and experiences to become a voice for change wherever we are. You may not see yourself as a leader but, in whatever position they are, all nurses develop leadership skills. Even in direct patient care, skills such as planning, coordination, persuasion and negotiation are used on a daily basis.

The following are just a few examples of how you can make a difference.

Universal health coverage will only possible if there is an adequate health workforce. We are all well aware of the worldwide shortage of nurses. Each of us can contribute towards recruitment of nurses by the way we personally present the image of nursing. Never project yourself as “just a nurse”. We can also contribute towards retention of nurses in the way we treat and support our colleagues.

We can expand our role in coordinating health, social and support services to address the social determinants and lifestyle factors contributing to health problems. Nurses should keep informed of the public social services; non-governmental welfare agencies; as well as community organizations, support, and activity groups to which they can refer their patients. This could range from food aid and housing to referring a lonely aged person to a social club, or advise a COPD patient to join a choir to improve his breathing.

Be willing to engage with change, or even better, be the change agent. Use your insights and creativity to find solutions and introduce innovation. Most innovation does not come out of a laboratory but from the staff working in organizations coming up with ways of doing things differently, or doing different things, to improve efficiency, effectiveness and better access to health care.

Most innovation does not come out of a laboratory but from the staff working in organizations coming up with ways of doing things differently, or doing different things, to improve efficiency, effectiveness and better access to health care.

Become an activist and leader in issues where change is needed within your community or society at large. You can use social media networks responsibly to help create public awareness of problems and possible solutions. This could be as simple as sharing posts on issues that you feel strongly about. Support campaigns on issues significant to health and well-being in your community as well as those of local, national and international nursing associations. You can make a start by following the ICN on Twitter @ICNurses using the hashtag #IND2017 or joining them on Facebook.

A part of the International Nurses Day campaign the ICN is also asking nurses to share on [email protected] their successes, innovations, and stories as inspiration for colleagues across the world.

Take the lead for change

Every small action counts. Can you imagine the collective power to influence health care, public opinion, and eventually public policy if every one of the global nursing force of around 20 million took up the challenge of making their voice for change heard.

“It is up to us – each and every one of us – to be a voice to lead others, our patients, our colleagues, our communities and our governments to better health. Let your voice be heard!” concludes the ICN publication Nurses a Voice to Lead – Achieving the SDGs.

Nurses Week and International Nurses Day gives us a great opportunity to make our voice heard. Use it and enjoy celebrating your profession with your colleagues and friends.