Cancer nurses needs an ambitious European Care Strategy

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Woman,With,Cancer,During,Chemotherapy,Recovering,From,Illness,In,Hospital [SHUTTERSTOCK/NDAB]

We must ask what concrete actions we can take to support and protect healthcare professionals, notably oncology nurses, a crucial workforce for our society, health and well-being, writes a liberal European lawmaker.

Véronique Trillet-Lenoir is a member of the European Parliament for the liberal group Renew Europe.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, many cancer patients saw their treatment postponed, not to mention the delays in screening and resulting lack of opportunities to be treated promptly.

At the same time, the mental health of frontline workers has been severely affected, notably with unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety. 30% of nurses left the profession in the EU in 2021, according to the latest data. This situation is worrying, as population ageing increases the need for long-term care.

We need to raise awareness of those important issues. This year’s European Cancer Nursing Day (ECND22), which takes place today (18 May), is an opportunity. As policymakers, we must ask what concrete actions we can take to support and protect healthcare professionals, notably oncology nurses, a crucial workforce for our society, health and well-being.

In this context, the announcement of a forthcoming European care strategy by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is welcome.

It should include additional elements to the proposals for Europe’s beating cancer plan. The European Parliament started working on recommendations to conceptualise and set up this Strategy.

To be successful, such a strategy has to be holistic and address pressing issues related to healthy work environments, well-being at work, resilience as well as opportunities for professional development and training, work-related empowerment and retention of the workforce. Prevention, in all its aspects, should have a central place in a Europe that cares for its population.

The cancer nursing community received particular attention in the context of Europe’s beating cancer plan. During the negotiation of the revision of the carcinogens, mutagens – and now reprotoxics – directive (CMRD), the European Parliament made clear that hazardous medicinal products, notably used in cancer treatments, must fall within the scope to enhance the protection of the cancer workforce, and especially cancer nurses.

The revision allowed a much-needed legal clarification. Yet to see tangible change on the ground, the Commission now has to deliver on its responsibility to publish, in 2022, guidelines for handling those substances and develop a definition and list of such Hazardous Medicinal Products.

The Renew Europe group also calls on an EU-wide mental health Strategy, with a horizontal “Mental Health in all policies” approach, providing for comprehensive prevention measures on mental health determinants and seeking to reduce existing inequalities, including access to support and treatment services.

Besides measures to improve health and safety at work of health professionals, the proposal for a directive on adequate minimum wages could positively impact the care workforce, whose pay is often too low.

However, public and private entities should go beyond the minimum level of wages

to make these professions more attractive. Indeed, according to OECD data, wage increases are associated with greater recruitment of long-term care workers, longer tenure and lower turnover.

Beyond wages, one must acknowledge that, in the context of longer care pathways and the evolution of practices and technologies, it is fundamental to recognise the experience gained on the ground and invest in up-skilling and re-skilling of the workforce. Further, strengthening the links between professionals, universities, and research is key to improving multidisciplinary collaboration.

Caregivers are first and foremost responsible for accompanying and caring for the patient. Cutting unnecessary red tape and administrative burdens would allow them to perform their mission to the fullest.

Certain medical tasks can also be shared among health professionals, thus allowing a better distribution of workloads, more medical time to devote to patients, and closer collaboration between professionals, considering that multidisciplinary practices guarantee continuity of care and harmonisation of care pathways.

Besides, the increasing demand for care due to the ageing population highlights the importance of identifying skills gaps and evaluating future needs, profession by profession, sector by sector, region by region, to train a sufficient number of workers.

In this regard, a territorialised organisation of care according to the density and needs of the population is likely to allow a rationalised and adapted care offer while fighting against inequalities in access to services and care.

Member States should ensure timely access to care across their territories by putting incentives to tackle labour shortages, further investing in care facilities and improving access to digital solutions such as telemedicine.

Investing adequately is urgent, notably in Eastern and Central European countries, as the “care drain” phenomenon is worsening situations of labour shortages and weakening the ability to provide timely patients access to quality care.

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