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Breaking down the barriers

Nurses experienced in one form of care can gain a lot by a brief secondment to a different area. Linda Belardi reports

Aged care nurses in Toowoomba have hit the wards of a busy private acute care hospital as part of a rare workforce initiative designed to promote greater understanding between the two sectors.

Lutheran Community Care and St Vincent’s Private Hospital in Queensland have partnered to offer enrolled and registered nurses the opportunity to trade places to upgrade their clinical skills in a different setting.

So far seven aged care nurses have opted to take part in the program each undertaking 40 shifts on the hospital wards as paid employees and another cohort is set to commence in October.

Maxine Noone, director of nursing at Salem Northridge aged care facility described the clinical partnership as a win-win for both sides.

“The experience has given our staff a deeper understanding of the clinical aspects of an acute episode and exposure to new technologies, and the acute care setting won from us some aged care tips.”

Noone said by pushing the staff beyond their comfort zones the experience has boosted the nurses’ confidence in their own skills and encouraged them to grow professionally.

“The program has given our staff a thirst for further education. One of the nurses looked into doing her masters in nurse practitioner studies; she had certainly never thought about doing that two years ago.”

Noone said historically there has been a lack of understanding between acute and aged care and the partnership has helped to build bridges between the sectors, especially as the lines between the two become blurred.

As part of the program the nurses undertake up to 10 shifts as a supernumerary, after which each nurse manages a case load of six patients.

St Vincent's director of clinical services Jeff Potter said the experience aimed to strengthen the nurses’ skills in monitoring for clinical deterioration and to prevent “rebounding” after an acute episode.

He said the nurses were eager to learn about advanced wound management, ECG monitoring and administering IV antibiotics and received exceptional feedback from the nurse unit managers at the hospital.

While the idea was originally conceived as a nurse exchange program, acute care nurses are yet to take up the offer of an aged care placement. Potter said the program offered wage parity and while acute care nurses were encouraged to participate, the program would remain voluntary.

Pat Woldt, a registered nurse who had worked in aged care for 25 years, was one of the first participants. She described the temporary stint in acute care as enlightening but it also reconfirmed her commitment to aged care. “It gave me a clear understanding of acute staffing and also how our relationships with residents and families are more intense than in the acute setting,” she said.

Despite rapid advances in technology over the past 25 years, the signs and symptoms of the conditions have remained the same.

While the risk of losing staff to the more highly paid acute sector was genuine, all of the nurses have said aged care remains their long-term future.

“Our staff have realised how much in-depth knowledge they have about our residents and families. They have a huge understanding of the patient and have the time to provide holistic care,” said Noone.

She is determined to retain her most highly trained and senior staff but is also committed to fostering their professional interests. “We are great believers in professional development and if they want to go into the acute sector that is our loss and the acute sector’s gain.

“One of the great attributes of the program is that it gives newer nurses the opportunity to see what it is like on both sides. We would never want to stand in the way of someone professionally.”

The initiative, which has won Private Hospital Innovation awards as well as Catholic Hospital Initiative awards, was presented at industry conferences last month and it likely to be increased to include placements in palliative care.

Both sides have reported improved communication and collaboration between the facilities.

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