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Tasmanian nurse Katie Pennington recognised as 2023 Remote & Isolated Health Professional of the Year

12 Dec 2023

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.

For­mer CRANAplus Chair Fiona Wake (right) presents Katie Pen­ning­ton (left) with her award in Cairns at the 40th CRANAplus Conference

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.”

Dri­ving from WA into SA on Anne Bead­ell Highway

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.”

Work­ing on APY Lands as part of SA Health COVID-19 Rapid Response Team

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.

Two types of pro­tein to go, maku vs egg, on a women’s bush camp.

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.”

Con­tin­ue read­ing about 2023 award recip­i­ents in the Excel­lence in Remote Health Prac­tice and New to Remote Prac­tice Cat­e­gories, or nom­i­nate a col­league for an award.