The Straits Times says

Nursing professionals show the way

Nurses are no longer the doctors' handmaids of old and are becoming more like collaborative partners of the physicians. That is as it should be. Such is the extent of change in the healthcare landscape that it's imperative that their roles are broadened and deepened. The manpower crunch has obliged them to take on tasks previously performed by doctors. Greater use of technology and changes to healthcare delivery have led to more training to equip nurses for new and complex roles in different areas.

These are all to the good, as the variety of work and the wider scope for career development are making the profession more attractive to a broader spectrum of people. A better supply will meet the growing demands of an ageing society. And deep skills will meet the expectations of a changing economy. From a broad perspective, the upgrading of nursing roles represents a useful model for many other sectors.

Rather than just lament the shortage of tertiary-level professionals like engineers, for example, employers should look at how second-line professionals can move up from playing supporting roles to undertaking specialised tasks. With rigorous training and accreditation processes, their contributions in niche areas might well be on a par with college-educated professionals, as rated by independent assessors. Therefore, there might be little reason in selected areas to maintain wage differentials based on paper qualifications alone. While nursing demonstrates how deep skills are within everyone's reach, the teaching service shows how salary structures can be merged for graduate and non-graduate professionals.

To fully appreciate changes in the making at progressive workplaces, one should take a closer look at how nurses are being trained to take over some responsibilities from doctors. At the National Kidney Foundation, some nurses can review the blood tests of patients and tweak their dialysis treatment independently. At the National Skin Centre, nurses have been able to perform medical procedures such as phototherapy, a treatment for serious skin conditions performed only by doctors in the past. SingHealth has trained senior nurses to carry out selected physical examinations, order investigations and perform procedures like taking blood specimens. These allow doctors to focus on more complex cases. At the National University Hospital, nurses even conduct research in areas such as cancer patient care.

Such initiatives are not just about efficiency and empowering nurses, the autonomy configured is essentially to benefit end-users by offering them more attention, saving time, reducing costs and improving the overall healthcare experience. Bosses and workers in other sectors, too, should see job restructuring in this light.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 17, 2015, with the headline 'Nursing professionals show the way'. Print Edition | Subscribe