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Care, compassion and number crunching

On receiving a top business award, Western Australia's chief nurse says her profession employs a range of talents to meet the demands put on them. By Flynn Murphy.  

Western Australia's Chief Nurse and Midwifery Officer, Catherine Stoddart, has won the state's Telstra Business Woman of the Year Award.

"I'm proud to be a nurse," she said on accepting the award, along with the White Pages Community and Government Award, at a ceremony in Perth.

Stoddart has a lot on her plate, providing leadership for about 12,000 nurses and midwives in the public system, and 35,000 private and non-government nurses.

On receiving the honour, she said: "This award, for me, is an opportunity to demonstrate to our community that not only are nurses and midwives carers, [but] that they are professionals, they are competent, they are passionate."

Stoddardt's has been a career spent breaking down the barriers that prevent people pursuing nursing careers, characterised by a strong commitment to improving nursing in remote and rural areas, and developing pathways to attract indigenous  Australians to the profession.

When asked about the importance of a business award, she said:  "It's important that roles in government and service leaders [committed] to improving our community are recognised for the range of skills they bring to business."

"They are not the same as in the commercial environment but are often transferable, and no less valuable. I'm honoured and humbled to receive the awards, and the response from nurses, at the ward level, from all areas of our business, has been overwhelming."

Stoddardt thinks the perception that nursing and business are strange bedfellows might be due to the fact that though many nurses have complex managerial responsibilities, "business language ... doesn't always resonate with nurses or health professionals."

She is a graduate of the Curtin Graduate School of Business, and completed her MBA in 2008. "There are fundamental skills [including] rostering, budgeting, managing conflict - especially within inter-professional teams - leading difficult [tasks], such as performance management for the clinical environment, understanding performance.

"These roles are often the gatekeepers of safety and quality, and it's essential to understand how to manage [these things]. I also think project management skills and broader exposure to leadership development is essential [for nurses], especially for mentors who are not necessarily in nursing, because this will assist in managing up to an executive, and the politics of health."

Kate McKenzie, Telstra group managing director for innovation, products and marketing and Telstra Business Women's Awards ambassador, said the judges "recognised [Stoddart's] success in attracting more nurses to WA for career development and increasing the credibility and upskilling of nurses."

Stoddart said her office has a strong commitment to supporting undergraduate and postgraduate education, with nearly 900 scholarships awarded last year in areas such as health service management and core clinical leadership courses.

"The West Australian government has also committed significant funds to scholarships in key postgraduate areas and this has a huge benefit for those wishing to take on clinical leadership roles."

Stoddart has had a long and varied career. Her Nuffield and Churchill fellowships (awarded in 2000 and 2006 respectively) have allowed her to travel to Alaska and Canada for first-hand experience of nursing practice in isolated areas. It gave her ideas and skills she has put into practice in Western Australia, developing strategic workforce programs for the Country Health Service "Ocean to Outback" rotational program for nurses.

"As part of my background I've been fortunate to undertake surgical places as a nurse, to work in hospitals - I had the great opportunity to be the regional director of the Kimberly, which I loved," Stoddardt said when accepting her White Pages award.

"I was inspired by the amazing remote area nurses, the experts in ICUs and community nursing posts, and those leaders that you may all know if you've had an interaction with the health service - that lead our wards every day - where they interact with all our patients, manage multidisciplinary teams of people, and make time-critical decisions about the lives of the people that they care about."

"I'm inspired by the nurses and midwives that I work with."

Stoddardt's interest in rural and regional nursing led to the establishment in 2009 of the Global Health Alliance, a partnership of WA Health with five WA universities, aimed at realising the World Health Organisation Millennium Development Goals.

The program aims to help everyone, from experienced nurses and midwives to undergraduate students, to gain international experience, ultimately encouraging them to put their skills and experience to work in a West Australian rural placement, including some in Aboriginal communities.
"I've had a wonderful career to date and there is still a bit to go," said Stoddardt.

She will proceed to the national finals of the Telstra Businesswomen's Awards, the winners of which will be announced in Melbourne on November 18. With any luck, nursing will have its first Business Woman of the Year.

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