x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Health chiefs call for Emirati nurses

Educators and health officials join forces to encourage nationals into a field that remains dominated by workers from other countries.

Huda al Ameri, an Emirati nurse, started out studying engineering at university.
Huda al Ameri, an Emirati nurse, started out studying engineering at university.

ABU DHABI // To persuade more Emiratis into nursing, health authorities are taking action to dispel the profession's "housemaid" image. Just four per cent of the 18,000 nurses working in the country in 2007 - the most recent statistics available from the Ministry of Health - were Emirati.

Most come from the Philippines, India and other Arab countries, a situation those in the field fear is not sustainable. "If something were to happen and the foreign nurses leave, who will take care of all the hospitals here?" asked Huda al Ameri, an Emirati nurse who works at the Between Bridges Clinic. Although Emiratis respect doctors, a nurse is perceived more "like a housemaid", she said, "giving injections and bathing patients".

To help rectify the situation, the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) and the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi have joined forces to encourage more nationals to join the field by offering them educational opportunities and higher salaries. Wages for local nurses are four times that of their foreign colleagues, who earn around Dh5,500 (US$1,500) per month, said Ms al Ameri. She is one of 30 Emiratis to have completed the HCT nursing programme, which was launched in 2004 to complement a nursing diploma the school has offered since 1987.

Hers is not a traditional choice, nor generally a respected one, among her fellow nationals, she said. "They don't realise the psychological and emotional support we give to patients and how important that is. It is only when someone has a sick relative that they realise how much nurses do." Dr Hatem al Ameri, the head of post-graduate medical education at HAAD and one of the consultants for the founding of the HCT course, stressed the need for better educational opportunities.

"They need to feel they can specialise, for example in emergency nursing or nutrition, that their education is not just restricted to their bachelor's degree and then that's it," he said. "A masters degree would make a big difference and continuous education throughout their career." He says the HCT course was finally helping to "provide a workforce" for a profession that relies too heavily on transient workers.

The associate dean for health sciences at HCT, Pam Cawley, acknowledges it is a "struggle" to get Emirati women into the programme. "Women want to go into business or IT," said Mrs Cawley. "It's the shiftwork and so on which deters people." Part-time work and more flexibility would encourage more local women into the profession, she says. "We want to get these women onto a career path. We don't want them to be fast-tracked into management in two years. But in time, we do want to see them running hospitals and in leadership positions in the health authorities here."

Mrs Cawley said that often, a student's choice of career was still based on "prestige". "What their families tell them is still very important," she said. "It's not always a direct reflection on their skills." Other problems can also arise with so many foreign nurses, Ms al Ameri said. "They don't know anything about the culture, about the patient. Sometimes, there are barriers between the patient and nurse, conflicts. You have to understand what you should or should not say."

She said foreign nurses often have no cultural awareness training, experience culture shock and struggle to deal with patients. When local patients are dealing with a local nurse, they are more likely to listen and trust diet and lifestyle advice, she said. Unlike many other countries, the UAE has no teaching hospitals, the advent of which would create a better environment for local professionals, said Mrs Cawley.

Nor are there any professional health councils to accredit nurses and regulate the profession. "I really hope to see more research being done in the field," said Mrs Cawley, "as well as regulatory systems." mswan@thenational.ae