Archive for June, 2008

Too many nurses

June 17, 2008

Too Many Nurses

Posted date: June 17, 2008

Our son decided to treat us on Father’s Day with a blow-out, at the same time celebrating his new job and a new paycheck. As I took my seat at the restaurant, I was startled when I got a good look at our server. Not only did she look familiar, but the last time I saw her, she was in a nurse’s uniform.It turned out that our server, a classmate of my son’s in high school, was indeed the nursing student I’d chatted with when we went to visit my son’s girlfriend who’d been hospitalized for dengue. And she was working in the restaurant to help out the family, since her parents owned this particular branch.

I’d been told that she had already passed the nursing exams and was waiting to get accepted for a post abroad. But was she still working in the hospital where I saw her? I asked. “No, I work here every day,” she said. “Most local hospitals have put a freeze on hiring nurses.”

Her statement got lost amid the hubbub of the family dinner, but I got to thinking about her plight later. For one, it struck me as strange that local hospitals would call a temporarily halt to new nursing hires. Months ago, the media were all agog about stories of the “brain drain” among health professionals, especially doctors and nurses, who were migrating in droves for better pay abroad. There was much speculation about the impact of such departures on our health system. Would there be enough doctors and nurses left here to look after the health needs of Filipinos, even those who could afford to pay hospital charges and professional fees?

But I remember a remark made by a Filipino doctor recently, who sought to quiet my concerns about the migration of health workers by declaring: “There are more nurses here than can find jobs.”

* * *

We have come to a point, it seems, where the supply of new nursing graduates, which has been building up the last few years due to increased demand abroad, has resulted in a glut of jobless nurses.

While it’s getting more difficult to find openings for nursing positions in the desired locales—the US, Canada and the UK, among the top destinations—local hospitals that in previous years had been complaining about the lack of qualified personnel are now enjoying the luxury of picking and choosing from among thousands of applicants.

Is it possible that Filipino families have, once again, over-reacted to a temporary bump in demand in the foreign job market and “over-produced” a supply of the needed workers? This isn’t the first time that those in the tail-end of a job trend have ended up on the short end of the employment stick. Decades ago, this happened to aspiring nurses, and then to medical technicians, physical therapists, caregivers and now it seems to be happening to nurses again.

We aren’t even talking about those who’ve gone through the requisite nursing course only to fail the licensure exams. Much of the blame for the poor showing of nursing graduates—with the percentage of passing exam takers falling steadily—has been heaped on the growing number of nursing schools, many of which have been able to give only cursory training to their students.

The end result could only be a buildup of frustration and restlessness among our young people, who go through years of grueling and expensive training only to find their employment prospects dashed. Perhaps better human resources planning and investment could prevent this cycle of glut and joblessness that afflicts us with dismaying regularity.

* * *

We get a taste of what such frustrations can lead to in the movie “Caregiver,” in which Sharon Cuneta portrays a teacher-turned-caregiver who joins her husband in London so they can save enough to get their son to join them.

Among the characters is a doctor who re-trained as a nurse so he could more easily find work in the UK, as well as John Estrada as Sharon’s nurse-husband. Both men find that there is more to career and personal satisfaction than earning a big salary or buying the latest consumer gewgaws. The doctor is fired from his post in the hospital when he disputes a Brit doctor’s diagnosis to save a patient’s life. While Estrada’s character cannot find a position as a nurse because he has too much “attitude,” and is consigned instead to work as a janitor, which position gnaws at his self-esteem.

Sharon’s character, in fact, finds it difficult to transition from her teaching job to her new post “cleaning the poo-poo of old people,” as a pupil of hers declares. But she offers an answer to both her husband and his friend, protesting the meanness of an elderly patient by averring that “I care about my family, I care about my work, I care about you.” With her patient’s help, she realizes that no matter how seemingly demeaning, the work entailed in looking after people is still important, and that personal fulfillment is as important as the “pounds” one earns.

* * *

Another aspect of the immigrant worker experience explored in “Caregiver” is how migration and the need to earn more money is often used to mask an untenable relationship.

A ne’er-do-well who could never give his family a stable existence back home, Estrada’s character leaves in search of greener pastures abroad, unaware that even in his new locale, his basic weakness of character would work against him. His wife follows, but to her dismay discovers that the grown boy she married, self-centered and selfish, has remained unchanged despite the new setting. Indeed, as women overseas workers have shared, many of them sought to escape unhappy marriages or weak husbands by working abroad. They maintain the façade of a happy family, while keeping a safe distance from the source of their unhappiness.