The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): Where do nurses fit in?

Patricia Thompson | 05/24/2016

Probably in more places than you think.

Sustainable Development Goals

Less than one year ago, in September 2015, the member states of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) depicted above. (Click here for larger image.)

Patricia ThompsonThe SDGs build on the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that were designed to come to a close at the end of 2015. The MDGs, which provided a “common language” to facilitate global agreement for sustainable development, were intended to be an easy-to-measure and easy-to-monitor mechanism through which developing countries could devise and implement strategies to decrease hunger, poverty, and child mortality, among other goals. While positive steps forward were attained with the MDGs, achievements were uneven, necessitating a shift in focus—still toward a sustainable world, but from a broader perspective that includes economic, environmental, and social objectives.

What differentiates the SDGs from the MDGs is that the SDGs are far more comprehensive in scope, as illustrated by the 169 specific objectives affiliated with the 17 goals. While the MDGs were primarily targeted toward developing nations, the SDGs are relevant to all countries and more clearly incorporate the economic, environmental, and social pillars of sustainable development.
As part of our special consultative status at the United Nations, the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International (STTI) commits to disseminate information and raise public awareness about the purposes and activities of the UN and related issues of global concern. As STTI meets that commitment, specifically as it relates to the SDGs, our members have frequently voiced a common question: Because only one of the SDGs, #3 (Good Health and Well-Being), includes the word “health,” where and what is nursing’s role in the SDGs?
The answer is, quite simply, “In all of them.” As chief executive officer of STTI, it has been my pleasure and privilege to travel the world, where I have seen nurses and midwives engaged in efforts and activities designed to promote health in a myriad of ways. The creativity I have witnessed by members of our profession in promoting health and disease prevention knows no bounds.

This creativity might be described in a textbook as addressing the social determinants of health, the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work, and age. The SDGs align perfectly with the social determinants—the conditions—that impact health, such as access to care (SDG 10, Reduced Inequalities); environments that promote health (SDG 11, Sustainable Cities and Communities); clean water (SDG 6, Clean Water and Sanitation), and clean air (SDG 13, Climate Action).
But don’t take my word for it; see for yourself. I encourage you to take a few moments to explore the 169 targets. Locate them by clicking here, scrolling down to the tabular chart titled “Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as proposed by the OWG,” and then selecting each of the 17 goals listed on the left. A list of targets is provided for each goal. I think you will find more places for nurses and midwives to be engaged than you realized.
Each one of us can make a difference. STTI encourages chapters and individual members to explore options where they as global citizens can be involved in efforts that support the SDGs. We also invite you to share your ideas, or what you have done to make a difference, by emailing
I leave you with a favorite quote of mine from Mahatma Gandhi: “The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world’s problems."

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Patricia Thompson, EdD, RN, FAAN
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