COVID-19, Health Inequalities and the Challenges of Cancer Nursing

Guest article by Andreas Charalambous, President, European Oncology Nursing Society

European Cancer Nursing Day (ECND) is a celebration of cancer nursing across Europe every year on 18 May, led by the European Oncology Nursing Society. ECND2020 will be special because this is the World Health Organisation’s Year of the Nurse and the Midwife.

Reflecting the principle of Universal Health Coverage, ECND2020 focuses on the need to address inequalities in access to good quality healthcare. While the obstacles to access to treatments such as high medicine prices are well documented, a range of challenges prevent access to good quality cancer care in many countries and perpetuate inequalities. These include:

  • a lack of specialist qualifications for cancer nurses
  • cancer nurse shortages
  • poor safety equipment and working conditions compromising patient and occupational safety.

EONS is currently carrying out a pan-European mapping exercise to identify where more needs to be done to address health inequalities in Europe by highlighting where specialist cancer nursing is available and to assess standards of occupational and patient safety. This will be launched at ENCD2020.

Ensuring access to specialised cancer nursing care for patients in every European country would go a long way to reducing health inequalities by ensuring all patients benefit from approved standards of care. A major campaign led by EONS on Recognising European Cancer Nursing (RECaN) is aiming to ensure that cancer nursing is recognised as a profession across all Member States, as a means to address inequalities by making the profession more enticing for graduating nurses. As a part of this campaign, we have developed the  EONS Cancer Nursing Education Framework and the EONS Safety Manifesto both designed to support cancer nurses and improve occupational safety.

COVID-19, cancer nursing and health equality

The COVID-19 crisis presents extra challenges for cancer nurses and their patients. Many cancer nurses are being transferred to assist over-stretched general nursing teams, while others are having to support their patients in challenging circumstances; cancer patients are sometimes being turned away due to a lack of beds for their treatment and tele-consultations have become the norm for immunosuppressed patients.

Former EONS Board member, Sara Torcato Parreira, a specialist oncology nurse working at the Oncology Day Unit at CUF Infante Santo Hospital, in Lisbon, told us about the impact the virus is having:

“We work more hours and we get tired more quickly, due to stress, PPEs and because we try to rotate teams, working with minimal resources. Also, the number of calls from patients is higher – they are concerned and confused about telemedicine and the redesign of the services. It is very demanding to work in this context.

“Now, more than ever, we need to invest in cancer nursing: we educate patients, screen for Covid-19 symptoms vs. treatment toxicities, establish networks with other healthcare settings (primary and palliative care) and follow up patients. “We need to have enough professionals so that we and our patients can stay safe. Cancer care cannot and must not stop.”

Perhaps one positive outcome of the current crisis will be that the general public, politicians and healthcare community will understand that it is only by supporting all parts of the multi-professional cancer care team – with nurses at its heart – that the battle for universal healthcare will be won. It has been great to see so much support from citizens for healthcare workers across Europe, politicians need to stop up now and invest more in skills, training and professional recognition of the specialist skills of our colleagues.

* Support our ECND campaign at #ECND20go4EQUALITY

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