Finland: Nursing schools struggle to attract applicants, thousands of spots unfilled

Finland is facing a severe shortage of healthcare professionals over the coming decade, experts warn.

Universities of Applied Sciences in Finland are struggling to fill nursing courses, despite the fact that the country is facing a well-documented shortage of healthcare professionals.

“When you think about the current image of nursing, to put it bluntly: it is frightening. It does not attract people, but drives them away from the industry,” Katri Ryttyläinen-Korhonen, Director of Education at Xamk, told Yle.

Xamk is a university of applied sciences in South-East Finland that trains nurses in the cities of Mikkeli, Savonlinna and Kotka. In 2021, the school had more starting places for nursing education than applications received.

According to figures from the Ministry of Education, the situation was the same last year in other universities of applied sciences located in Häme and Kajaani. The recruitment problem relates to full-time nursing studies, which are usually taken up straight after high school.

The figures reveal that the number of students applying for nursing courses has decreased by thousands over the past few years.

Need for something new

Tiina Kirssi from Mikkeli has worked as an operating room nurse for eight years, but she told Yle that she does not consider nursing to be a vocation.

“I just didn’t come up with anything else in my final year of high school. I thought there would be no harm in that option [nursing], as at least employment would be guaranteed. But it took a long time before I felt the industry was my own,” Kirssi explains.

She finally found her place in the sector towards the end of her studies, when she interned in the surgical ward of a Belgian hospital. The technical aspects of the role suited her, she recalls, as well as the added advantage of learning something new.

According to Xamk’s Ryttyläinen-Korhonen, Kirssi provides a good example of how the sector needs to change in order to attract fresh applicants.

“The work of a nurse is a demanding, specialist job that requires a lot of skills and decision-making capabilities. We also have healthcare workers who are technology-oriented or interested in international missions, leadership and development,” Ryttyläinen-Korhonen said.

The Ministry of Education announced just before Christmas that there will be an additional 300 nursing study places on offer from the autumn of 2022, as Finland seeks to plug the growing gap between healthcare demand and supply.

Laurea University of Applied Sciences, located in the Helsinki metropolitan area, and the Lahti-Lappeenranta University of Applied Sciences will both have additional nursing education places from this autumn.

However, offering more places on courses alone will not solve the shortage of nurses. During the internships included in the training, many students find that the work is not what they expected, especially as younger people want the opportunity to influence their own work-life balance.

“Many young people value leisure time, and healthcare workers do not necessarily have very much,” Kirssi says.

Uusimaa, South Savo facing severe shortage

The shortage of healthcare workers in Finland is not a new phenomenon: as specialists have been warning for the past ten years that older age groups are retiring and new healthcare workers need to be trained.

According to Keva, the agency responsible for pensions of public sector workers, the shortage of healthcare workers is currently most severe in the regions of Uusimaa, South Savo and Northern Ostrobothnia.

The healthcare system in South Savo, for example, would currently need an additional 680 nurses.

Kirssi said there are many reasons for the problem, and they are not just related to young people’s image of the sector.

“The pace of work has accelerated during the eight years I have been in the field. There are mental and physical strains, neck and back problems, shift work. Night work has been found to increase the risk of breast cancer in women. In the emergency room patients are sometimes violent,” she explained, adding that the coronavirus pandemic has been the last straw for some healthcare workers.

Many have made the long-considered decision to leave the industry altogether, she says.

According to Xamk’s Director of Education Katri Ryttyläinen-Korhonen, educational institutions, organisations within the sector and the future welfare regions — the makeup of which will be decided by the regional election vote on 23 January — must work together to find solutions to the shortage of nurses.

“Each could think of ways to increase their own influence over healthcare workers’ career development. Resources or pay do not, in my view, provide the entire solution,” she said.

In Tiina Kirssi’s view, healthcare workers have put up with too much for too long, adding that they feel under appreciated. She points out that this is reflected in the fact that in public, nurses are often talked about in a different tone than other social and healthcare sector professionals.

“We do valuable work, but this is not seen in the level of appreciation. And I’m not just talking about monetary appreciation, although there’s room for improvement there too. The whole thing is wrong and now is the time to fix it,” she says.

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