/ 26 August 2006

How to grow your own nurses

Almost 10 years ago, Eben Donges Hospital in Worcester acknowledged a looming nursing crisis and established a groundbreaking learnership programme that has uplifted the community and averted massive nursing vacancies.

”We realised that our staff must be our most important asset and that we would need to invest in their training and development if we wanted to retain our current staff and attract new members,” said former nurse Liesl Strauss, now deputy director of human resource management at the 235-bed Eben Donges hospital.

Since the inception of the hospital’s staffing project 90 people recruited from the surrounding communities have become nurses, 12 cleaners have become auxiliary (assistant) nurses, 36 nurses have completed an additional year of training and 32 others have completed an additional two years of training and can now register as professional nurses.

The hospital has managed to fill all its lower- and mid-level nursing posts with graduates from its programme, and is only short of eight professional nurses — an 8% vacancy rate. Other hospitals in the Western Cape have an average vacancy rate of 35%, while professional nurses are in short supply countrywide.

Eben Donges’s learnership programme has given unemployed people, many living in informal settlements and isolated rural areas, the opportunity to gain a formal nursing qualification and uplift their families and communities.

Farm labourers with a good matric have also been recruited and trained and many of them are now professional nurses. ”They don’t want to leave. They are earning a fantastic salary in comparison to what they were earning in the past. They have an absolute career path and they are often able to uplift their dependants from a life of poverty,” said Strauss. Audits also show that those who do go overseas tend to return, suggesting the system is encouraging commitment.

Joyce September qualified as an auxiliary nurse last year. Raised by her extended family in Zweletemba, an informal settlement outside Worcester, September had first-hand experience of the health sector when her physically and mentally disabled child died eight years after first contracting TB meningitis.

”During her visits to the hospital she developed a love for nursing,” said Strauss, who feels September has all the attributes needed to be an excellent nurse. ”She overcame her adversity and fulfilled her dream.”

New recruits undergo one year of training before being appointed auxiliary nurses. The new recruits receive an allowance while on their first-year learnership.

This is followed by another year of training to qualify as a staff nurse and a further two years to be appointed as a professional nurse, a precious commodity in the health care sector.

Learners get their practical training at district hospitals that are close by, so they don’t have to leave their communities to go to academic hospitals in urban areas, as is usually the case.

Strauss pointed out that their current drop-out rate is 0% — the national figure is 40%.

The Eben Donges model is being shared with others in the province, and last year it won an Impumelelo award for innovation in public service.