Top-class UAE nurses scouted by struggling western health systems

Global recruitment shortage leaves highly regarded nursing population exposed, experts warn

Experts say the UAE’s super-skilled nursing workforce is in demand from other nations where increasing numbers have left the profession in recent years. Corinna Kern for The National
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Well-trained nurses experienced in state-of-the-art hospitals are being scouted from the UAE to work in understaffed western healthcare systems, say recruiters who fear a shortage of qualified staff.

The economic benefits of care through creating long-living healthy communities is the message on International Nurses’ Day, May 12, but hospitals have raised concerns of the pulling power of the region’s nursing profession.

Paths to citizenship, free education, competitive pay and shorter working hours are attractive propositions for nurses looking to relocate from the GCC to Australia, the US or Europe.

The nursing profession is just not what you choose – it’s a calling, number one
Sarah Illyas, chief nursing officer at Aster Hospitals and Clinics

Experts said the UAE’s super-skilled nursing workforce is in demand from other nations that have seen increasing numbers leave the profession in recent years.

According to the International Council of Nurses (ICN), about 100,000 nurses have left the US healthcare system since 2020, with up to 600,000 more expected to depart by 2027.

The UK has also reported an increase in nurses looking to leave the industry since the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020, while in Switzerland drop-out rates of newly qualified nurses are between 18-36 per cent, the ICN said.

That has increased pressure on the UAE workforce, seen as perfectly primed to step in and fill vacancies around the world, said Mohamad Fakih, chief nursing officer at Fakeeh University Hospital, Dubai.

“From a retention standpoint, there is a huge challenge in the UAE,” he said.

“In the US, UK, Australia and Europe, there is very high demand for nurses, especially after Covid, which has put the nursing shortage as a national crisis.

“There are a lot of agencies, hospitals and government authorities facilitating the recruitment of nurses from different parts of the world, and they're giving a lot of extra benefits for nurses.

“In New Zealand, for example, after three months of joining nurses would be considered for permanent residency.

“Because they are in high demand, some countries are even facilitating their permanent residencies, such as green cards.

“Western countries know very well that nurses in the UAE in particular are very well trained.”

Talent pool

India and the Philippines are the main talent pools from which nurses are recruited worldwide.

With its diverse population and global transport links, the UAE is a popular place for healthcare staff to gain expertise in advanced clinical settings, with a broad expanse of hospitals and clinics.

Despite offering golden visas to nurses, however, some hospitals in the UAE are still finding it difficult to retain staff.

“Nurses here know very well if they go to the US or UK, there are many benefits,” said Mr Fakih.

“It's also about having another nationality and a free education for their families and also less working hours.

“In the US, usually it's 30 to 35 working hours per week, but in the UAE it is closer to 48 hours per week.

“When we talk about retention, it has been a big challenge over the past two to three years, nurses are grabbing that opportunity.”

Up to 80 per cent of nursing recruitment is driven by a small number of high-income nations, mostly from countries with poorer economies.

In late 2023, the UK’s NHS reached its target of recruiting 50,000 nurses, but 93 per cent were recruited internationally, rather than home-grown.

According to the ICN, 6,000 of those nurses were from countries marked by the World Health Organisation as having the most pressing health workforce challenges.

These ‘red list’ nations have the numbers of working doctors and nurses below the global average of 49 per 10,000 population.

Of these 55 countries identified by the WHO, 37 are in Africa.

Global challenge

Recruitment is a global challenge, with 25 per cent of nurses in Fiji leaving to work in Australia and New Zealand in 2023.

Speaking ahead of International Nurses’ Day, ICN president Dr Pamela Cipriano said now is the time for a shift in perspective and for counties to invest in nursing.

“We have seen time and again how financial crises often lead to budgetary restrictions in health care, typically at the expense of nursing services,” she said.

“This reductionist approach overlooks the substantial and often underemphasised economic value that nursing contributes to health care and society as a whole.”

Sarah Illyas, chief nursing officer at Aster Hospitals and Clinics in the UAE, who has been nursing for 24 years, said the profession is unlike any other and can still be an attractive career.

“I never wanted to become a nurse and my childhood dream was to become a journalist, a crime scene reporter,” said Ms Illyas, from Pakistan, who lives in Dubai with her husband and two children aged 15 and 16.

“My mum was a nurse and she did not approve of me to get into anything so volatile, so she wanted me to follow the same path.

“Surprisingly, when I got into this profession and I started going near the patients, learning what healthcare is all about what the nursing profession calls for, there was a 360 degree transformation in my mindset. I realised what humanity is all about.”


Ms Illyas said recruiting nurses became more challenging after the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Twenty years ago, nursing was presumed to be an accessory department to the whole healthcare ecosystem,” she said.

“Nursing has since gained a lot more recognition.

“When the pandemic came in, the scarcity of nurses became a global agenda.

“There are institutions developing these nurses from the academic point of view.

“But is that nurse sufficient enough for me to take straight from the graduating college to start providing clinical care?

“The answer is no, because nursing is a very skill-oriented profession.”

Ms Illyas has faced her own health challenges, being treated for breast cancer.

Now given the all-clear, she has fresh perspective on the value of nursing and the special requirements of the job.

“The nursing profession is just not what you choose – it’s a calling, number one,” she said.

“You will find yourself frustrated in this profession because the profession calls out for a lot more sacrifices than you can imagine.

“But we are a chosen generation.

“Florence Nightingale didn't have the resources – her motivation was simply to serve and contribute in her own way to make anybody's pain go away. That is nursing."

Ministerial approval

"Nurses are the cornerstone of any health system, making it very important to invest in nursing staff to prepare them for health leadership positions, as well as to highlight the capabilities of national nursing cadres in global campaigns," said Abdulrahman Al Owais, Minister of Health and Prevention, in a statement to mark International Nurses’ Day.

"The evolving needs of health care have reaffirmed again and again the critical role of nursing cadres in shaping future healthcare strategies.

"Nurses play a fundamental and vital role in supporting universal health coverage and improving the quality of life of the community."

Updated: May 13, 2024, 11:46 AM