30th anniversary of the Vienna Declaration on Nursing: reflecting on the progress made

Paracelsus Medical University

Professor Jürgen Osterbrink

This year is the 30th anniversary of the Vienna Declaration on Nursing. The Declaration pledged to support the new role of the nurse in the era of health for all, with nurses acting as partners in decision-making on health planning and playing a greater role in empowering individuals, families and communities to take charge of their own health. It called for new attitudes and values to be fostered so that nursing could best achieve its potential.

Professor Jürgen Osterbrink, one of the panellists at an upcoming WHO regional meeting on nursing and midwifery, is well placed to reflect on the progress made in the 3 decades since the landmark Declaration was signed. He began his career in Germany before the Vienna Declaration, and is now Professor of Nursing at the University of North Florida (United States of America) as well as Director of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Nursing Research and Practice at Paracelsus Medical University (Austria). Professor Osterbrink is chairperson of numerous boards and is known to his peers in the profession as “the pain reliever”. When he states his profession on a form, however, he simply writes “nurse”.

“I am proud to be a nurse,” he says emphatically. “That was true when I qualified in 1982 and it’s true today.”

So how did this young philosophy student end up blazing a trail that has opened doors for those in the nursing profession and, directly or indirectly, improved the care of hundreds of thousands of people?

Nursing is the highest privilege

“It was the end of the 1970s and a dear friend of mine was paralysed in a motorbike accident. I was struck by how highly complex a health system is and I realized that nursing was at the centre of all that, so rather spontaneously, I started to train as a nurse at the St Franziskus-Hospital in Münster in Germany,” he explains.

“It was a Catholic hospital and there were nuns from a nursing order working on the wards. They were there at 6 o’clock in the morning and they were the last to leave the ward at night. It was their dedication that taught me nursing is the highest privilege; no other group of staff has the amount of contact that we do with the patients.”

From there, Professor Osterbrink sought out contrasting experiences within the nursing profession. Time spent specializing in intensive care in an extremely high-tech environment in Germany was followed by a spell with Médecins sans Frontières in Ethiopia. “It was a culture shock, yes,” he confides, “but it’s good to be able to do both high-tech and low-tech nursing – I learned that very intensively there.”

Golden times for the profession

In the early 1990s, Professor Osterbrink completed a Master of Nursing degree at the University of Glasgow (Scotland, United Kingdom), and a PhD in Health and Nursing Science at the Catholic University of Leuven (Belgium). Numerous academic appointments followed, including Chair of Nursing at the University of North Florida, which he has held for 13 years.

So how does he, as one of the most highly academically qualified nurses in the world, see the relationship between education, training and public respect for the profession?

“I suspect a strong association between education and the status of the profession. If you have a university degree, you have not only learned practical skills, you also have an understanding of the basis of what you do – that doesn’t happen with a 3-year vocational training,” he says.

“The baby boomers are about to retire; they will need more and more care over the next 20 years. There will be fewer doctors and more nurses taking on very different tasks compared to 20 years ago. In the course of my work, naturally, I give lectures to medical students and I encounter great interest in nursing and no resistance at all from the younger generation of doctors. From the care assistant to the PhD graduate, every member of a nursing team is valued and has their role to play. We need care assistants who have done a 1-year training, but they should also be able to work their way up to a PhD from there.”

“The digitalization of health provides new opportunities in nursing,” he notes. “You need a very high level of education to use these digital methods, which will revolutionize care of patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other chronic health problems.”

In conclusion, Professor Osterbrink adds, “My prognosis for the profession is of golden times to come.”

The meeting of government chief nursing officers, national nursing and midwifery associations and WHO collaborating centres in the WHO European Region, at which Professor Osterbrink is a panellist, will take place in Athens, Greece, on 3–4 October 2018.