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Ex-Commonwealth Chief Nursing and Midwifery Officer makes WHO list

Four Australians have made the 2020 List of 100+ Outstanding Nursing and Midwifery leaders around the world.

The list was announced to mark last year's International Year of the Nurse and Midwife and is a joint venture from the World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Nursing Now, International Council of Nurses (ICN), International Confederation of Midwives (ICM), and Women in Global Health (WGH).

The list features the achievements of nurses and midwives from 43 countries and across six global regions, to recognise these women and the millions of nurses and midwives around the world.

Nursing Review caught up with one of the Aussie honourees, Professor Debra Thoms who is currently trying to stay retired after a short stint at QUT and a long, distinguished career.

NR: Congratulations, how does it feel to have made such a huge list?

DT: It's very exciting and quite humbling really. And I am in some good company.

It must be a bit different to be recognised in a year when we're recognising nurses during a pandemic. Does it make it even better?

I think it would have been special anyway, but as you say, given what 2020 was, and what 2021 looks like it's going to be, it just gives it that bit of extra specialness.

We can't really avoid talking about the last year. How was it for you professionally?

It was an interesting year. I think that in Australia, we've obviously not suffered to the extent that some of our colleagues have overseas. 2020 was an interesting year for me anyway, because I spent the year at QUT as the Acting Head of School, in an academic environment, which has not been my usual working environment.

So that was going to be different anyway. And then the COVID pandemic overlay meant that afforded a series of different challenges in terms of continuing to provide good education for the next generation of nurses, through the nursing program.

You've had a most distinguished career, looking at some of the roles you've held. How did you get started in nursing?

I think I've been enormously privileged in my career. I have had some really great experiences. When I left school in the seventies, I did what was called a Combined Degree Nursing Programme. So nursing was still in hospitals then.

I then worked for a short time in Sydney at the Prince Henry Hospital. And then I went bush and worked as a remote nurse in the Northern Territory. That's where my move into management started to happen. I worked in the Royal Darwin in nursing administration and also did my midwifery up there, which was fabulous.

Then I came back to new South Wales. It was when I was doing my masters, I did that full time. But I then got a job in New South Wales at Manning Base Hospital at Taree, as the Deputy Director of Nursing.

I'd really firmly moved into a management career by then. And had a range of roles there in nursing management, including at the Royal Hospital for Women, where I then became the Executive Director of the hospital, which is a broader based health management role. And we moved the hospital during that time, which was a great experience. And it was a wonderful place to work. I was there for eight years.

And then I became an area CEO, that's what they were called then, they're called LHDs now. I was based out at Dubbo, it was the Macquarie Area Health Service. But it's now part of Western New South Wales.

I later returned to nursing, because in my heart I was always a nurse, and nursing was where I wanted to be. And I really wanted to be much more centered in nursing, in roles that more directly engaged with my profession. I loved the general management role, but I really wanted to come back to my profession more centrally, I suppose.

And that ultimately led to me being an Area Director of Nursing in South Eastern Sydney. And then I got the job in South Australia as their Chief Nurse. And then came back to new South Wales as Chief Nurse in New South Wales Health, and I was there for about six years.

I then took a short break out of public sector health to be at the Australian College of Nursing for three years. I was their inaugural Chief Executive, when the two state-based colleges came together.

And then I got the Commonwealth Chief Nurse job. And as the Commonwealth Chief Nursing and Midwifery Officer I had further involvement with WHO, attending as part of the government's delegation to the World Health assembly, and also being the Australian person at the executive board of WHO, which was really a wonderful opportunity and a great experience.

I feel, as I say, quite privileged to have had the career I've had. I think nursing provides these opportunities, if you're prepared to take them.

It provides lots of pathways for people. And I think you can see that in the four people that have been selected for this from our part of the world. We do have, in many ways, quite different career paths, which really demonstrates the opportunities that nursing provides to people that enter the profession.

How have you seen the role of the nurse evolve over your career?

I saw that probably the most being at the university where I've had the time or the opportunity to have to look more in depth at what goes into nursing curriculum these days.

And I contrast that with what I learned 40 years ago. So much of what they learn, we never learned. I think that, not just the knowledge that we expect nurses to have these days, but the decision-making, the autonomy we expect them to practise with, and the technical skills that we expect them to have as well, is so far different to what it was when I started nursing, and it's changed enormously, but also the roles have evolved.

The advent of the role like the nurse practitioner, we've now got independently practising midwives in this country. We've seen some of those roles shift and change as well, which has given other opportunities, for not just the profession, the nurses and midwives, but also enhances the services available to the community. There has been enormous change.

What do you see in the future as important areas for the profession?

I think one of the challenges we have is to help community and governments to understand the unleashed potential that lies within nursing and midwifery, but if I think about the current pandemic, yeah, I do think we've underutilised nurse practitioners, there's real opportunities there. And I think in looking at those sort of roles, and how we can better build team based models that utilise the skills and capabilities of our expert nurses, particularly in clinical settings, we can actually enhance and improve our services and make them more accessible to people.

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