Nation's nurses on the COVID-19 frontline

An opinion piece by the Australian Government’s Chief Nursing and Midwifery Officer, Alison McMillan.

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General public

When the World Health Organization (WHO) designated 2020 as the Year of the Nurse and the Midwife, it could not have foreseen the health crisis that would engulf the world. 2020 also marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale – the world’s most famous nurse and founder of modern nursing.

Her pioneering work was born out of crisis – war. And so it is today that nurses around the world and in Australia are once again on the frontline and in a war – this time against the dreadful coronavirus.

Here in Australia, our nurses are playing a crucial role across the patient care spectrum. They are working in respiratory clinics, providing important support, comfort and guidance to people who are worried and frightened about whether they have COVID-19. They are delivering care to people in their homes so they can stay well – particularly people with chronic conditions. In aged care, nurses are helping to put in place vital infection control processes to protect the elderly. Nurses are very much at the frontline in the intensive care units, where the nurse is the person who is at the bedside of the most vulnerable, 24 hours, seven days a week.

It’s not widely recognised that nurses make up the largest segment in our health workforce. Registered nurses comprise the largest health care occupation. In 2018, there were around 276,000 registered nurses in Australia.

It’s a most valuable resource which the Australian Government is now looking to tap into as demand for hospital care is likely to put unprecedented strain on our health system and our health workers, who every day are saving and improving lives.

Health Minister Greg Hunt has announced important initiatives to bolster the ranks of nurses around the nation. The Government is funding up to 20,000 new online education places so that registered nurses can develop skills and knowledge to help in the delivery of care in intensive care and high dependency units across Australia.

This will allow experienced nurses to be used to maximum effect in the national response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and support a doubling in the number of intensive care beds in hospitals. The Government is also funding an online refresher course to get registered nurses, who may have recently left the profession for a variety of reasons, to return to the workforce. These initiatives have the strong support of the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation, Australian College of Nursing and Australian College of Critical Care Nurses.

There has been a strong response from nurses. Across Australia, already 3083 enrolled to complete the refresher course– 983 here in NSW; and 14,600 looking to work in critical care.

I am very heartened by this response – but certainly not surprised.  That so many nurses would put up their hands to be part of the fight against coronavirus is, simply, what nurses do. It’s in their DNA. I also find it interesting that, in crises such as this pandemic and the Global Financial Crisis, we often see nurses returning to the health workforce when partners lose their jobs through no fault of their own. So the flexibility of the profession, which is still female dominated, helps meet both the individual’s and the nation’s needs. 

Finally, as we honour the work of our nurses through the Year of the Nurse and the Midwife and celebrate Florence Nightingale’s pioneering work, it is pertinent to recall that the major focus of her care of wounded soldiers in the Crimean War was the importance of sanitation and hygiene, including handwashing. Through simple improvements, she was able to cut the mortality rate massively.

Following the principles of good hygiene, particularly handwashing, is now at the very heart of our coronavirus response. We are back to the basics – and they’re working, just as they did two centuries ago.


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