Three-part prescription to alleviate nursing crisis in NSW

Tuesday, September 20, 2022
Kevin Petrie
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Kevin Petrie

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Professor Kevin Petrie is Vice-Chancellor and President of Avondale University.

It’s about funding promotion, placements and pathways

When you open your eyes after having a gall bladder removed, a baby delivered, or a heart rehabilitated, the first person you’re likely to see is a nurse.

The question for people in New South Wales is: how many of us will get to receive treatment and see a nurse in front of us over the next few years? After the exhaustion, stress and illness of two years of COVID-19, combined with long-term deferral of workforce succession planning, our state is facing a nursing shortage.

The Victorian government’s decision to pay fees for 10,000 people who study nursing and midwifery over the next two years is bold. It will make it easier for universities to attract students but, critically, will provide no extra funding or clinical placements. While the policy is enthusiastically supported by students and unions, it will do little to change the supply of graduates, given the demand for nursing courses across Australia is strong.

Tasmania is concerned about a loss of prospective students to Melbourne, and it is easy to imagine universities in southern New South Wales suffering a slump in demand as students opt to commute, enrol on the other side of the Murray and save themselves thousands of dollars.

While we would welcome more government support for nursing enrolment in New South Wales, our experience of training health professionals at Sydney Adventist Hospital is that other policies—and I’ll suggest three—provide far better value for money.

1. Promote quality
Teaching quality and graduate outcomes must not be sacrificed in the scramble to recruit more nurses. While Avondale is Australia’s newest university, we’ve built a strong reputation for decades and now enjoy the highest level of student satisfaction and strongest graduate outcomes of any nursing course in Australia. While we could take more students, additional resourcing will be required to grow courses without diminishing the learning experience, given the capacity constraints for education within our health system.

The quality and capability of our future nursing workforce is not assured by simply ushering in more students at the same Australian Tertiary Admission Rank. We’ve developed Australia’s top nursing course through attention to the quality and breadth of the education and training students receive so they graduate job-ready. Patient outcomes must not be compromised by accepting any dilution of training standards.

2. Fund placements
The nursing crisis is not new—it’s just been rendered far more acute by COVID. For the past decade, we’ve known about a demographic cliff approaching within nursing and that more nurses would be required. However, there have been significant limitations on the number of nursing places available as placements are required at hospitals for each student to put their theory into practice. Devoting funding to private and public hospitals for hospital educators and nurse placement administrators would enable hospitals to grow the number of nurses we could enrol across the state.

Clearly, workforce issues will need to be addressed to ensure nursing remains an attractive career choice. Providing funding for postgraduate programs that provide a career pathway for nurses into senior, specialised and aligned careers would also be valuable.

3. Support pathways
One of the most valuable investments the New South Wales government could make would be to support pathways and career guidance for mature-age students and school leavers interested in nursing. We need to maintain and even increase entrance standards for school leavers and mature-age students but also provide support to ensure prospective students understand what a career in nursing involves and how the journey begins—so there’s a strong match between those drawn to the profession and those who’ll enjoy and thrive in it when they start studying or working.

Funding free preparation courses for mature-age career changers, a coordinated recruitment campaign that provided access to all institutions, and stronger postgraduate pathways for nurses seeking new skills would contribute to a healthier future for nursing in our state.

While Victoria’s policy doesn’t promise a long-term solution, it does increase pressure on our state to urgently expand nurse training opportunities. Targeted funding to support promotion, placements and pathways will return stronger long-term value for New South Wales if policies are developed now in consultation with universities, unions and healthcare providers.

This piece first appeared in The Australian on September 14.