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Listening to the voice of nursing

Debra Thoms, the head of the Australian College of Nursing, talks to Amie Larter about the merger and current focus of the organisation

What first prompted your choice for a career in nursing?

When I left school I could not decide whether I wanted to be a nurse or go to university. I found a program that let me do both. I had actually done nursing as a Girl Guide – I had to do a service and I did it at my local hospital. I remember thinking: “This is something I would like to do.” When I was finishing high school people were saying “You should go to uni”, and of course nursing wasn’t in universities then; however, I actually found a course that let me do my bachelor of arts and my nursing at the same time so I was able to get the best of both worlds.

What has been your career leading up to your current role?

I worked in Sydney at Prince Henry in the cardiothoracic unit, then went to the Northern Territory and worked in remote areas. I completed my midwifery there and when I left was assistant director of nursing at Royal Darwin Hospital.

I did my master’s in NSW, was deputy director of nursing in Taree, then to Camden as DON and to the Royal Hospital for Women. I worked in Dubbo as CEO of the Area Health Service, then came area director of nursing at South Eastern Sydney, chief nurse in South Australia and chief nurse in NSW.

What does your current job involve?

The overarching operational management of the Australian College. At the moment we are still occupied with completing the unification process and all the requirements of that. We are looking in line with all the strategic plans that the board has developed, how we will take the organisation forward and grow it into the future.

Do you miss the practical side of nursing?

There are probably very few nurses that move out of patient contact that don’t still in a way miss that. But what I see in these roles, one of the critical things I can hopefully do is to enhance the capabilities of nurses at the bedside and nurses who have direct contact with patients, to do that even better and to be fully recognised for the fantastic roles they play.

RCNA and TCN merged to become the Australian College of Nursing in July. What drove this merger and how will members benefit?

The merger really has a long history. In 1949, nurses in this country wanted one national professional nursing organisation. We ended up with two and over the years a number of members have looked to unify the two organisations. The integration of the two of the main functions of both organisations are very complementary. Here in Sydney there has been a large education focus and in Canberra we have had a focus on the policy and representation arms. There are synergies of those two elements that come together in the new entity – which I think can benefit members and the profession. The members very much saw that by bringing the two organisations together we build on the strengths of both and the aim is that we therefore have a more effective and robust organisation at a national level that focuses purely on professional issues.

What is your vision for ACN and how do you see it developing?

We would like to see that ACN speaks to nurses at all levels about their profession. It provides them with an opportunity to have input not only into the direction that the profession takes but how we input into health more broadly, and how nursing contributes to the health of the community. And by having this combined voice, and enabling the focus to strengthen, that we can therefore be a more effective contributor for nursing in healthcare in this country. And to ensure that nursing’s role within the delivery of healthcare is well recognised and understood.

What are the key issues you are currently focusing on?

The role of nurses in terms of the workforce. There are a number of projects that are coming out, from groups like Health Workforce Australia, that either we have had some input into or are keen to be involved in, to ensure that the skills and capabilities of nurses are well recognised and that we make the best use of the skills and capabilities of nurses.

We are also keen to promote roles like nurse practitioners and enabling nurses to practise to their full scope, but having a clear understanding of the advanced practice roles nurses can undertake. We are keen to see that nursing has some critical input into the primary healthcare and aged care agenda. And that the role that nurses can play in achieving those agendas is fully utilised.

What do you enjoy most about your job and being part of the nursing industry?

Nursing has been a fantastic career for me – and continues to be so. I really enjoy the contact you have with people and in this new role I really enjoy the fact that I get to interact with and meet nurses from right across the country. That I have an opportunity to provide input into debates in a wide range of arenas and to represent the viewpoint of the profession; opportunities through submissions, through attendance at meetings, through workshops, consultative processes – all the sorts of things that happen.

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