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200 years on, Florence Nightingale is influencing our response to COVID-19

You may wonder how it is possible for someone who was born 200 years ago to be influencing our response to the COVID-19 pandemic? Yet, in 2020, the revolutionary ideas of Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing, are fundamentally shaping the way healthcare professionals are responding to highly infectious diseases such as COVID-19.

Let’s take a look at how Florence’s approach to nursing are proving as important today as they were during her lifetime.

Recognizing the importance of infection control

In 1854, aged 34, Florence Nightingale, along with 38 other volunteer nurses, was sent to a British camp in the heart of the Crimean war. When she arrived, she found overworked staff, a short supply of medicines and poor sanitation. Concerned that this was contributing to the rapid spread of infection, Florence worked quickly, commissioning the British government for additional supplies and enforcing new hygiene standards.

The changes she made, especially by insisting on strict hygiene practices, such as regular hand washing, are believed to have resulted in a dramatic reduction of death rates.

In the years after the war, Florence drew upon her experience to write one the most influential medical texts, Notes on Nursing. This book became the foundation of the modern nursing profession, and emphasized the importance of sanitation in managing the spread of disease and infection which continue to be important today, as world governments and public health experts fight to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Florence Nightingale in the Crimea

A holistic approach to nursing

Notes on Nursing also highlighted the impact of social and economic factors on an individual’s health and the importance of access to healthcare for all. In her book, Florence outlined a set of interconnected factors that influence an individual’s health outcome – from nutrition and personal hygiene − to social factors, such as the importance of visiting friends who are sick − through to economic factors, such as social class and housing status.

This holistic approach to healthcare was groundbreaking for its time, and continues to shape the way nursing is approached today: as a practice that considers the whole patient and their care needs. During the time of a global pandemic, the influence of societal and economic factors upon the infection rate and health outcomes of individuals who contract COVID-19 is especially clear.

Florence Nightingale photograph, ca. 1880

A lasting legacy

In 1860, Florence used her charitable fund to establish the first secular nursing school in the world. Today, it remains one of the top nursing schools globally.

Although the nursing profession has changed a lot since the 1850s, Florence’s focus on sanitation to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, and emphasis on a holistic approach to nursing remain foundational in the work of nurses today – particularly during a pandemic.

This was acknowledged by the British National Health Service who in March 2020, built and named a temporary hospital in East London to treat COVID-19 patients, the NHS Nightingale.

Celebrating Florence and modern-day nurses

In 2020, we are celebrating the International Year of the Nurse and Midwife. Declared by The World Health Assembly, this year we recognize the vital role nurses and midwifes play in providing health services, often in challenging conditions.

It is therefore a fitting time to reflect on the lessons we can still learn from the trailblazing work of Florence Nightingale 200 years later. Thank you, Florence, and thank you to all our nurses who continue to serve patients with the same compassion and commitment she did two centuries ago.

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