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The schools were closed because the HA said it lacked the resources to run them at the time and the government wanted to upgrade the quality of teaching by offering nursing degrees at the universities.

After the reopening, 2,400 nursing students will graduate each year after 2014 from both the nursing degree programmes at four universities and from the nursing schools.

However, the number of nurses may still be insufficient to satisfy the community’s needs, especially as the population ages, health care services expand and disease patterns change constantly.

Also, the government’s attempt to fill the gaps left by experienced nurses with fresh graduates may not be an effective solution to the shortage problem.

Many seniors have complained that junior nurses are too inexperienced to handle working on their own and require a lot of help from the experienced nurses. This has added more pressure on top of their heavy workload.

Nursing Officer Wong Kam-man has also noticed that some university nursing graduates are not keen on working in the hospitals after graduation. Some may focus on conducting research or work in other industries instead. “They just want to get a degree,” Wong says.

Winnie Chan, a second-year nursing student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), appears to confirm this. She says more than 20 students transfer to other disciplines each year in her school.

“I think those who have transferred never wanted to be nurses, even when they entered [the school], they came just because they wish to transfer,” says Chan. “Entering nursing is not that difficult, and it’s easy to transfer in the CUHK.”

To Diana Lee Tze-fan, the director of the Nethersole School of Nursing at the CUHK, a long-term and coordinated manpower planning strategy is more important than the government’s current measures to tackle the shortage. The planning should take into account the changing patterns of chronic diseases and the need for community health care services in an aging society.

“What [we have from the government] now is a knee-jerk reaction,” says Lee. “There is an outcry in the hospitals now. This knee-jerk and short-term vision can’t really help.”

Apart from the lack of a coordinated manpower plan from the government, there is another side of the problem that is often overlooked. Some nurses think their profession is not respected in Hong Kong and this is another factor driving them to leave the field.

Chow Ting-kwan, a registered nurse working in the North District Hospital, says Hong Kong people usually regard doctors as professionals, but not nurses. Unlike the nurses in some other countries, those in Hong Kong cannot prescribe medicines to patients and give doctors their opinions on treatment. They have to listen to doctors’ orders.

“A nurse [in Hong Kong] is just a handyman or an assistant,” says Chow. “People don’t respect nurses like people in the foreign countries do.”

Nurse Mary seems to agree with Chow. She says a patient’s family member once accused her of not “serving” the patient well. She feels this showed a lack of respect. “I’m not here to ‘serve’ the patient,” says Mary. “But to ‘take care of’ the patient’s basic needs only!”

Mary says when a patient recovers, they usually think the doctors are great. They always thank the doctors first and may take for granted the efforts made by nurses during their treatment.

Mary sighs: “Nurses are always the forgotten ones. Doctors take the leading role but we are just foils at the back.”