International Nurses Day: Why we celebrate on Florence Nightingale’s birthday

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Portrait of smiling nurse drinking coffee in hospital
Portrait of smiling nurse drinking coffee in hospital

With all the recent NHS controversies, International Nurses Day seems more important than ever this year – but you probably still haven’t heard of it.

Luckily, we’re here to explain what it is and how important it is.

Why May 12th?

The International Council of Nurses (ICN) chose May 12th for International Nurses Day because it is Florence Nightingale’s birthday.

Ah, the founder of modern nursing!

Yes, although some people disagree. In 1999 UNISON petitioned the ICN to change the date, as they felt that Florence Nightingale was not representative of modern nursing.

However, the date stuck.

Does the day celebrate all nurses?

Yes, all nurses across the world.

Although there are separate days that celebrate student nurses (8th May) and School Nurse Day, which this year fell on 11th May.

How is it celebrated?

Every year the ICN picks a theme – this year’s theme is ‘Nurses: A force for change – Improving health systems’ resilience’.

Are there any special events for it?

Florence Nightingale, whose birthday International Nurses Day takes place on (Picture: Getty Images)
Florence Nightingale, whose birthday International Nurses Day takes place on (Picture: Getty Images)

There’s always a service at Westminster Abbey in honour of International Nurses Day. In it a lantern is symbolically passed from one nurse to the next, to represent the passing on of knowledge between nurses, until finally the Dean places it on the altar.

Why do nurses need a special day?

International Nurses Day is celebrated around the world every May 12, the anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birth. You can find information about Florence Nightingale on the Florence Nightingale International Foundation (FNIF) website and the Girl Child Education Fund.

As the largest health care profession in the world, there is no doubt that nurses are key to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. Nurses are often the only health professionals accessible to many people in their lifetime. So nurses are particularly well placed and often the most innovative in reaching underserved and disadvantaged populations.

Nurses are educated to understand the complex nature of maintaining health and wellness, and the impact of psychosocial and socio-economic factors such as poverty, unemployment and ethnicity.

They see the context for wellbeing and accordingly act in way to reach beyond the immediate presenting problems.

Nurses have done much towards the achievement of the MDGs and to help shape and deliver sustainable goals and outcomes beyond 2015. And we can be proud of our achievements. Yet there is still more that we can – and must – do.

Nurses must engage in advocacy and lobbying. We must be involved in the development of any programme introduced to improve health services as it is nurses who have the practical knowledge of how health service delivery can be designed, coordinated and effectively implemented.

National nurses associations have an important role to play in informing, advising, encouraging and supporting nurses in their work. NNAs must continue to work with governments and others to strengthen health systems and create the conditions necessary to maximise the contribution of nurses.

It’s nice to give them some acknowledgement from time to time.

What can I do for International Nurses Day?

Well, the event is mostly aimed at people within the industry.

If you’re not a nurse but you want to show your appreciation for them, then you can support them by posting on social media to raise awareness of International Nurses Day.

If you’re a teacher, then 12th May would be a good time to teach your pupils about what nurses do.

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