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Pandemic spotlights emerging nursing workforce in the NT

1 Dec 2022

Angela Sheedy’s time at the Howard Springs quarantine facility during the pandemic has got her reflecting on the untapped skills of student and newly-qualified nurses in Australia prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, she calls for an open discussion and innovation around how we implement our student and newly graduated nurses into the health workforce.

Angela PPE train­ing at RDPH

The Howard Springs quar­an­tine cen­tre in the North­ern Ter­ri­to­ry, where 64,000 peo­ple were sent dur­ing two years of the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic, utilised stu­dent nurs­es and new­ly grad­u­at­ed nurs­es who were enlist­ed into the health workforce. 

The junior nurs­es had dif­fer­ing knowl­edge bases but all had the foun­da­tions of health care. This was cer­tain­ly advan­ta­geous for a quar­an­tine facil­i­ty which pro­vid­ed a pub­lic and pri­ma­ry health care over­lay, accord­ing to Angela Sheedy, who was work­ing at the facil­i­ty as the Nurse Edu­ca­tion Man­age­ment Consultant. 

We need­ed that work­force, says Angela, and now, as Senior Research Offi­cer with Charles Dar­win University’s Men­zies School of Med­i­cine, she has been tasked with explor­ing why the oper­a­tion of the facil­i­ty was so suc­cess­ful. She’ll be pro­duc­ing a report that will go towards prepar­ing Aus­tralia for any future sim­i­lar emergency.

A Reg­is­tered Nurse with 20 years of prac­tice in the NT, Angela has exten­sive expe­ri­ence work­ing with under­grad­u­ate nurs­ing stu­dents and a career focus on pub­lic health. She says the pan­dem­ic has put the spot­light on this source of nurs­ing exper­tise and she wants to encour­age an open dis­cus­sion on how the health indus­try through­out Aus­tralia can con­tin­ue to use the skills that stu­dent nurs­es and new­ly grad­u­at­ed nurs­es have learned.

They were a ter­rif­ic part of the work­force, moti­vat­ed and edu­cat­ed,” Angela says. We couldn’t have done what we did with­out the Assis­tants in Nurs­ing (AINs) and new grad­u­ate and new to prac­tice nurses.”

The facil­i­ty at Howard Springs, about 30 kilo­me­tres south-east of Dar­win’s CBD, once an unused work­ers’ camp on the city’s out­skirts, was rebadged as the Cen­tre For Nation­al Resilience. Able to house more than 2,000 peo­ple at one time, it was a tem­po­rary home for about 22,000 expat and trav­el­ling Aus­tralians, includ­ing those strand­ed in the cen­tre of the pan­dem­ic in Wuhan, Chi­na, and then on repa­tri­a­tion flights from around the world, as well as peo­ple on human­i­tar­i­an flights.

We had to find more and more nurs­es, and quick­ly,” says Angela. 

As part of the emer­gency response, stu­dent nurs­es were imple­ment­ed in the Assis­tance in Nurs­ing role, a role already under con­sid­er­a­tion and fast-tracked for the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic response. In the NT, the cri­te­ria includ­ed sec­ond and third year under­grad­u­ate nurs­ing stu­dents, and they had to have com­plet­ed their first year place­ment, their foun­da­tions of nursing.

Bring­ing in the AIN emer­gency work­force, we realised what an amaz­ing untapped work­force we hadn’t used in this way before in the NT. These stu­dent nurs­es were very moti­vat­ed and excit­ed to be part of the pan­dem­ic response. The AINs were so very suc­cess­ful because we had peo­ple with health knowl­edge, an under­stand­ing of med­ical lan­guage and an under­stand­ing of the cul­ture of a health facil­i­ty all under the guid­ance of a senior reg­is­tered nurse.

We then turned our atten­tion to new­ly grad­u­at­ed nurs­es. With the cur­rent sys­tem, new grad­u­ates may or may not get accept­ed imme­di­ate­ly into the grad­u­ate nurs­es posi­tions in hos­pi­tals around the coun­try after grad­u­a­tion, and it may take six months or more to achieve.

We need­ed this work­force and couldn’t have done what we did with­out the AINs and new grad­u­ate nurs­es. They took on core respon­si­bil­i­ties and did a great job, which includ­ed tasks like COVID-19 health screen­ing, COVID-19 swab­bing and health assess­ments for any aris­ing med­ical conditions.

And pre­vi­ous to this many of the stu­dent nurs­es were work­ing in hos­pi­tal­i­ty or as order­lies or unemployed.”

Angela at the Nurs­ing War Memo­r­i­al, Ade­laide Riv­er, NT

Grad­u­ate nurs­es can reg­is­ter with AHPRA as soon as they fin­ish their degree, says Angela. 

Over three years, they’ve done 800 hours of clin­i­cal prac­tice on top of their stud­ies,” she says. The nurs­es com­ing out of uni­ver­si­ty have cur­rent health knowl­edge, includ­ing the use of avail­able tech­nol­o­gy and resources.”

Angela high­light­ed the indus­try expec­ta­tion for new­ly grad­u­at­ed nurs­es to do anoth­er year in hospitals.

It’s not been the Nurs­ing or the Mid­wifery Board that is demand­ing this extra year, it’s become an expec­ta­tion in acute care sec­tors and is con­sid­ered a nec­es­sary step in a nurs­es’ career, by both the indus­try and grad­u­ate nurses.”

Hos­pi­tals receive gov­ern­ment mon­ey for a set num­ber of posi­tions in a Grad­u­ate Nurse pro­gram where they are men­tored and supported.

This addi­tion­al year of sup­port is great but not every nurse gets an imme­di­ate posi­tion and it can leave new­ly grad­u­at­ed nurs­es in lim­bo,” Angela says. 

This may have no reflec­tion on their nurs­ing skills and knowl­edge but is just a result of pro­grams being only able to offer so many positions.

And this is in an envi­ron­ment where we are recog­nis­ing the impor­tance of pri­ma­ry care as well as spe­cialised clin­ics for can­cer, et cetera, keep­ing peo­ple out of hos­pi­tals. We are now see­ing more dis­cus­sion and actions to inte­grate these stu­dents and new nurs­es into these sys­tems and ben­e­fit from their skills.”

Angela is delight­ed by the announce­ment by the NT Gov­ern­ment to increase its grad­u­ate nurse pro­gram, to increase places in the ear­ly entry path­way for nurs­es and mid­wives with less than 12 months expe­ri­ence (new to prac­tice nurs­es), and to increase the Assis­tant in Nurs­ing (AIN) role to extend beyond acute care to include pri­ma­ry health care.

This is all great out­comes for our new nurs­es and stu­dent nurs­es,” she says. It shows the NT con­tin­ues to move for­wards and sup­port this group to enter the health industry.”

Angela’s 12-month MRFF fund­ed project with CDU will look at both the res­i­dents and the work­force, con­duct­ing sur­veys and look­ing at lead­er­ship roles. 

The work­force is a big chunk of that research,” says Angela.

We will focus on what we did and why it worked so well. The aim is to cre­ate a tool­box to guide, what we need to do in the event of anoth­er pan­dem­ic like COVID-19.”