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A new career path

Postgraduate study is being looked at to combat the skills shortage.

If current predictions are to become a reality, the desperate shortage of nurses in Australia is likely to worsen as the population grows and ages.

The government has put a number of measures in place to combat this, such as increasing undergraduate university places and cash incentives for former nurses to return to the workforce. Employers and nursing bodies are also doing their part by offering lifestyle incentives, including flexible hours, and scholarships.

Now universities have joined the fight. Their solution: postgraduate study.

Earlier this year, the University of Western Australia launched its master of nursing science (entry-to-practice), which allows people to switch career paths without having to do another undergraduate degree.

Accredited by the Nurses and Midwives Board of WA, at completion of the course graduates will be eligible to apply for registration as a nurse in Western Australia.

It offers another avenue into nursing, says Professor Judith Finn, chair in nursing research in the School of Population Health which is conducting the course in partnership with Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital.

“Historically anyone with a degree who wanted to be a nurse would have to go back and do another bachelor’s degree. This offers people an opportunity to get a master’s degree as well as registration as a nurse,” she says.

The curriculum has been modelled on the Melbourne University master of nursing science, which is now in its second year of running.

“Talking to Melbourne University, they have graduates from science but also from humanities, business, and accounting (undertaking the nursing degree),” Finn says.

“There is sometimes a misconception that you have to have a science undergraduate degree but they have actually found a better indicator is how well the students did in their undergraduate degree, not what they did.”

The first cohort of students was made up of 29 men and women from fields as varied as psychology, business, education and biomedical science, and with an average age of 35.

The two-year full-time degree is quite intensive and comprehensive. There are clinical placements in the summer and winter university breaks. There are 800 hours of clinical practice, which is the requirement of the Nurses and Midwives Board of WA.

Most of the clinical practice, including general, medical, surgical, acute care and aged care nursing, would be at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital.

“It is something we see as a plus because most of the other university nursing courses are traditionally practised in lots of different hospitals and students don’t get a sense of belonging to any particular organisation,” Finn says.

There had been an increasing recognition that the range of nursing experiences could be gained in a single hospital, which gave the students a more consolidated clinical training, says Finn.

However, students would need to go to Princess Margaret Hospital or Fremantle Hospital for child health placement and to Graylands Hospital for their mental health placement. They would also have three weeks of rural training, which would be run by the School of Primary, Aboriginal and Rural Health Care.

Financial burden has often been cited as a reason why people don’t enter into postgraduate study. Alleviating this, 50 federally-supported nursing places have been awarded to UWA for this course so students can pursue the degree without having to pay fees up front.

The places are along similar lines to HECS places, in that students repay the fees at the end of the degree, once they start earning a wage.

The master of nursing science degree follows two other degrees introduced by the School of Population Health last year. They are postgraduate degrees for nurses - the master of public health (nursing), a specialised coursework program within the master of public health, and the research-based master of nursing research, which includes a research thesis and core units in research methods.

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