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What would Florence do?

Celebrate the legendary nurse by following her directive to insist on recognising and exerting your ability to create change. 

The International Council of Nurses has emphasised the innate potential of the nursing workforce through its selected theme for yesterday’s International Nurses Day (IND), Nurses: A Force for Change.

As many of you would be aware of, IND is celebrated across the globe every May 12 – the anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birth. The day provides the perfect opportunity for all nurses to sit back and reflect on how much their work really matters to those around them – their patients and families, their colleagues and peers.

Florence Nightingale continually demonstrated those nursing characteristics we value so highly: critical thinking and a commitment to essential care. With her life spanning most of the 19th century (1820–1910), she forged and witnessed the transformation of healthcare, fighting for what is now often taken for granted, such as clean hospitals, professional nurses and data-driven research. But it was her optimism and perseverance that forced change in healthcare.

Nightingale acknowledged her own personal responsibility to initiate change, recognising, “If a patient is cold, if a patient is feverish, if a patient is faint, if he is sick after taking food, if he is bed-sore, it is generally the fault, not of the disease, but of nursing (Nightingale 1859).” She rallied her arguments for change in nursing around the idea of essential care and the creation of environments where the ill are done no harm. It was in her commitment to progress that she became a strong nursing leader, contrary to her time.

Modern-day nurse leaders continue to follow Nightingale’s philosophy and instigate change within healthcare. Australia’s Chief Nurse and Midwifery Officer Dr Rosemary Bryant is one such leader. Rosemary has been closely involved in major initiatives such as the Personally Controlled Electronic Health Record, the Practice Nurse Incentive Program and the implementation of Medicare funding for nurse practitioners – each initiative significantly changing the practice methods of today’s nurses.

ACN’s 2014 Orator, professor Roianne West, is another such example. West has more than 20 years’ experience in Indigenous health and is the first professor for Indigenous health in the country to be appointed to a conjoint position between a university and a health service. Her leadership in relation to the development, recruitment, education and training of Indigenous nurses and midwives cannot be overstated. Nurse leaders such as Bryant and West lead by example, showcasing to their colleagues how change can be affected through one’s own individual practice.

To ensure all Australian nurses can be a force for change in our own health system, there must be acknowledgment that, individually, we are a vital resource for health; we must see not only the big picture and the workplace issues that are creating obstacles to achieving high-quality care but also our own roles within those environments.

The bigger picture involves the need to address the predicted nurse shortages, improve workforce flexibility and provide clear metrics on the investment in nurse staffing. But on an individual level, it involves making positive contributions to your practice environment. As nurses, we are responsible for initiating progress in improving workplace culture, which reduces turnover rates and bolsters recruitment, reinforcing positive outcomes for staff and system alike. Similarly, nurses are responsible for participating in research and developing innovative models of care, which will go a long way in providing evidence of the effectiveness of nursing care.

The current healthcare climate is rife with opportunity to demonstrate initiative and innovation in nursing care and workforce development. Nursing leaders of today are working to enhance the profession and improve nurses’ ability to provide healthcare to the population. Each of us, regardless of where we are placed within the system, has a circle of influence through which we can have an impact on nurse retention, workforce flexibility and care outcomes, essentially changing the picture of the nursing profession in Australia.

So, as we celebrate Florence Nightingale’s birthday on IND, I would encourage you to consider whether you are a force for change just as she was. I still believe Florence summarised it best, “Unless we are making progress in our nursing every year, every month, every week; take my word for it we are going back.”

Adjunct professor Debra Thoms is CEO of the Australian College of Nursing.
For a fully referenced version of this article, visit www.nursingreview.com.au

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