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UOW academic makes WHO list of nurse and midwife leaders

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 Elizabeth Halcomb from the University of Wollongong’s School of Nursing.

NR: How does it feel to have made such a prestigious list?

EH: I think it's very humbling to be included on a list with a group of such amazing nurses and midwifery leaders from across the world, so I was quite surprised, I think, to be listed there. It's really good recognition of some of the work we're doing here in Australia.

I would imagine as a nurse, an academic, you're not used to getting such recognition.

No, and my work is in primary healthcare, so that's really nurses outside of a hospital setting, and often nurses are a little bit invisible in that setting, so it was really nice to be able to represent some of the nurses in primary healthcare and be recognised in that space.

You just used the word humbling. To be recognised for a year where nurses have been so integral to our global health ... and of course 2020, the year of the nurse and midwife ... what does that say to you?

It's been a really important year to celebrate nurses in 2020 and, in some ways, as much as the pandemic has been a horrible thing, I think it's created an awful lot of opportunities for nurses and nursing to really shine.

I think the community have really seen what it is that nurses do, and really appreciate the role of nurses within their healthcare team. And I think, as we sort of settle into a new normal, it's a real opportunity for some of those things that are perhaps not going so well in our health system, it's an opportunity to perhaps look at how that's historically come about and perhaps get some real change, particularly in the primary care space.

How has the last year been for you professionally?

Professionally, it's been a particularly challenging year. I mean, obviously working in the academic setting, we have had a lot of changes to contend with. But because my work is in primary healthcare it's been really important for us to work as researchers with our primary healthcare colleagues, because a lot of the primary healthcare nurses in the early days of the pandemic were actually losing their jobs.

And for us as academics, that was a horrifying realisation that we were moving into a time of a pandemic, and yet we were letting nurses go and they were unemployed.

So I guess we stepped up fairly quickly, and my research team and I have conducted a reasonable amount of research around primary healthcare and COVID, and hoping that some of that has allowed the nurses' stories to be told, particularly the policy and planning, because if those stories aren't told for this time, then maybe next time we're not going to have the skills and ability to manage it better.

Talk to us about your career so far. I'm assuming potentially that you started out on the tools as a nurse at some point.

I worked in acute care for around 10 years before I went and did a PhD. My clinical experience was mostly around acute care, but I started a PhD and ended up working in the primary healthcare space during my PhD, and from then on my research career has really focused on primary healthcare, particularly nursing in general practice and chronic disease management.

You’re a professor of primary healthcare nursing at UOW. Why is that area important to you?

I guess it's really important because we have got a significant portion of our nursing workforce who work outside of the hospital setting and those nurses play a really important role in a whole range of things, from chronic disease management to keeping people well and keeping people out of hospital, to supporting children in schools, to working with people who are incarcerated, to managing people in the community.

So, there's a whole range of roles that the nurses do that often go unnoticed in that community setting, so it's a really exciting place to be working because it showcases that nurses and health professionals really do work with people to build strong communities and build health.

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

I guess, particularly in the primary healthcare space, the role of the nurse has evolved significantly. When I first started out in primary healthcare, the government had provided a little bit of funding to employee nurses in general practice, but there really weren't that many nurses.

Now we're looking at 12,000-plus nurses working in that sector and doing really advanced roles compared to what they were doing back in those early days, where they were a bit of a doctor's handmaiden.

We're really providing quality, safe medical nursing care to keep people out of hospital, to keep people well, and to keep people the best they can be in the community. So nurses have stepped up into those roles and really are providing really important services together with their medical colleagues to keep Australians out of hospital and as well as they can be.

What do you see as the important areas for the future of nursing?

I think some of the really important things that we have perhaps learned from the last year and moving into this year is to make sure that nurses have a seat at that policy table, and that they are part of the discussion and part of the planning in terms of moving our healthcare system forward.

We have seen last year how nurses have played a really important role, and when we see our chief medical officer up there, we should see our chief nursing officer up there as well. When we have policy discussions about how to move the healthcare system forward into a new normal, they need to involve not only doctors, but nurses as well.

So I think the real challenge for nursing in the next 12, 18 months is to make sure that we support our professional organisations, support our nursing leaders, and that we are vocal about what it is we do and the contribution we make – and we don't keep saying that we're “just a nurse”.

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