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Tasmanian nurse Katie Pennington recognised as 2023 Remote & Isolated Health Professional of the Year
This year’s recipient of the CRANAplus Aurora Award for the Remote and Isolated Health Professional of the Year, Katie Pennington, reflects on the power of nurses’ voices, the community health model of care, and her work from East Timor to East Tasmania.
“I have to speak up when I see a situation I’m not willing to accept,” says remote area nurse Katie Pennington. “Changing systems can be slow, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give it a try, shouldn’t make a start.”
“‘I believe we have a duty to negotiate and advocate on behalf of our clients. We might be the only people they have who are health workers and who have a broader knowledge of the health system.
“We have the knowledge to explain the inequities to the decision-makers.”
In receiving the Aurora Award, Katie was acknowledged for her ‘quiet dedication to and advocacy for the health of remote communities’, and for her philosophy and nursing practice revolving around evidence-based care.
“Through my practice in remote communities over the years, I have found significant barriers, systemic barriers in the main, that prevent us giving that care,” says Katie.
“For example, the ability to facilitate pregnant women attending appointments with a family member. A simple but important task. Identified and well-acknowledged. If that service is not supported in real life by healthcare systems, then we know we are not providing the best care.”
Katie says that research is one part of her nursing career where she has been able to look at influencing a change in systems that aren’t working well.
“The research I undertook as part of my Masters involved a small project examining legislation, [and it] has seen some changes in legislation in WA,” she says
“The project findings are now being considered in terms of current broader national projects such as RN-designated prescribing, scope of practice review and national nursing strategy. I am hopeful that the research will contribute to positive change for nurses and communities in remote Australia
“This shows that one small question, one everyday nurse doing one small thing, can indeed have a ripple effect.
Katie, originally from Adelaide, lives with her family on a rural bush property on the east coast of Tasmania, in the Chain of Lagoons area – which, she says, is as picturesque as it sounds.
Until moving there in 2018, the family spent several years in remote communities in the Pilbara and central desert regions of Western Australia.
“The children were coming of school age and they had spent most of their lives away from family,” says Katie.
“We wanted them to develop their identity with a sense of place, so we came back to Tasmania, where my husband comes from, and we are now embedded in this local community.”
Katie works at the Bicheno Medical Centre, where she’s currently involved in helping transition the practice to a community health model of care, similar to the model used by Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations (ACCHO).
“Community health models of care are cost-effective models for vulnerable populations,” says Katie, “with the flow-on effect of reducing the cost on the acute care system down the track.
“In Tasmania, we have several vulnerable communities. Apart from being in a remote area with extremely limited health services, we have, here where I work, a hyper-ageing population, lots of people over the age of 75. In addition, across the demographic, we have quite a lot of clients with complex comorbidities – overlapping on occasion with mental health or alcohol and other drug concerns.”
Katie says it is exciting to be a part of the project, funded through the Primary Care Rural Innovative Multidisciplinary Models (PRIMM) program.
“The funding is exactly what’s needed to help us better understand the needs of this region and, working with the community, to co-design health services that are more fit for purpose than what is currently available.”
The inequitable level of health care available in remote Australia was first brought home to Katie while she was serving as a medic with the Australian Army from 1998 – 2002.
“I did a bit of work in a remote community in Australia on a development project and, shortly after that, I was deployed to East Timor,” she explains.
“What was a real eye-opener were the similarities I saw between the health care available in remote areas of Australia and those in East Timor, in the early days after conflict.”
When Katie left the army, she started a law degree but soon realised she missed working in healthcare and swapped her studies to start training as a nurse in Tasmania. An opportunity to attend a CRANAplus Conference in Darwin set the course of her career, she says.
“I knew I wanted to work in remote Australia. I also knew I didn’t want to go remote without the right knowledge and skills and was determined to get into the Graduate Diploma in Remote Health Practice at Flinders University, considered one of the best courses of its kind.
“I think my time in the Army and in East Timor helped me get a place even though I was new to nursing.”
Katie later undertook a Graduate Certificate in Child and Family Health Nursing to fill in her knowledge gap at the time in child health nursing, a critical component of health practice in remote communities.
A CRANAplus Member since 2006, Katie has represented her home state of Tasmania as a member of the CRANAplus Member Nursing and Midwifery Roundtable; advocated for rural health care at the Tasmanian Parliament Legislative Council Inquiry into Rural Health Services in Tasmania in 2020 as a CRANAplus representative; and sits on the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care, Primary Care Committee, as a nominee of CRANAplus.
The Aurora Award will mean Katie has quite a full mantelpiece, having earlier taken out the CRANAplus Primary Health Care Champion Award winner in 2011 and the CRANAplus Excellence in Research in Remote Health Award in 2019.
“I would like to urge all remote nurses to take the time to realise the power of their voice, and what that voice can mean for creating positive change for individuals and communities that they work with,” Katie says in closing.
“Politicians, legislators and bureaucrats may think they are meeting the needs of people in remote communities, but they are so far removed from [that] reality, that they don’t know the extent of the needs of people in these remote locations, the complexity of the situations or the frontline impact of our fragmented systems of care. As remote area health workers we can use our unique expertise and voice to break it down for them, to help make sure that the systems we work in are fit-for-purpose.”