Home | Specialty Focus | Taking healthcare to the streets: Kylie Ward

Taking healthcare to the streets: Kylie Ward

On any given night in Australia, over 100,000 people are homeless.

The impact of not having a permanent residence goes far beyond simply not knowing where you might safely lay your head to sleep. Homelessness makes it difficult for people to go to school or study, gain and retain a job, and care for their health.

People experiencing homelessness have greater health needs than the general population. Most are likely to have chronic and complex conditions and mental health issues.

Yet despite their significant health needs, people experiencing homelessness tend to mainly access tertiary care. This essentially means they present at hospital only once their health has seriously deteriorated.

Last month, I spent a long, cold night sleeping outdoors as part of the Vinnies CEO Sleepout. The CEO Sleepout shines a spotlight on homelessness in Australia and raises funds to change the lives of people experiencing homelessness by providing access to food, accommodation, education, counselling, employment and health services.

When it comes to health services, if we are to truly care for Australians experiencing homelessness, it is time for our health system to adapt and move away from traditional models of delivery, particularly when it comes to primary healthcare.

Expecting Australians experiencing homelessness to make an appointment with a general practitioner, get themselves to the appointment, wait in a crowded waiting room and pay for the service will never work.

Kylie Ward at the 2018 Vinnies CEO Sleepout.

Expansion of outreach services such as those delivered by Vinnies and new models of care must be prioritised.

Nurse-led care models would be a great place to start. Nurse-led models that have been instigated across the country, such as nurse-led primary healthcare clinics or employment of specialist community health nurses, are demonstrating exceptionally positive outcomes.

These types of care service are not just more accessible for people experiencing homelessness but are delivered by medical professionals trained in the field. Receiving respectful, holistic and needs-specific care builds trust and encourages future, ongoing utilisation.

As we continue to strive to ensure every Australian has a safe space to call home, it is important to fund and encourage provision of primary healthcare services when and where people experiencing homelessness truly need it.

Adjunct Professor Kylie Ward FACN is CEO of the Australian College of Nursing (ACN). ACN is the pre-eminent and national leader of the nursing profession and a community of dynamic and passionate nurses.

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