Three-part prescription to alleviate nursing crisis in NSW

It’s about funding, internships and paths

When you open your eyes after having a gallbladder removed, a baby delivered, or a heart rehabilitated, the first person you likely see is a nurse.

The question for the people of New South Wales is how many of us will receive treatment and see a nurse ahead of us in the next few years? After two years of exhaustion, stress and illness from COVID-19, combined with a long-term postponement of personnel succession planning, our state is facing a nursing shortage.

The Victorian Government’s decision to pay tuition fees for 10,000 people studying nursing and midwifery over the next two years is bold. It will make it easier for universities to attract students, but most importantly, will not provide additional funding or clinical placements. While the policy has enthusiastic support from students and unions, it will do little to change the supply of graduates as demand for nursing courses is strong across Australia.

Tasmania is concerned about the loss of potential students to Melbourne and it’s easy to imagine southern New South Wales’ universities suffering a slump in demand as students choose to commute, enrolling across the Murray and thousands of to save dollars.

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Whilst we would welcome more government support for nursing enrollment in New South Wales, our experience of training healthcare professionals at Sydney Adventist Hospital shows that other policies – and I suggest three – offer far better value for money.

1. Promote quality
Teaching quality and graduation results must not be sacrificed when recruiting more nurses. Although Avondale is Australia’s newest university, we have built a solid reputation over decades and now enjoy the highest student satisfaction and the best graduate results of any nursing course in Australia. While we could accommodate more students, given the capacity constraints for education in our healthcare system, additional resources will be required to expand courses without compromising the learning experience.

Simply accepting more students with the same Australian Tertiary Admission Rank will not ensure the quality and efficiency of our future nursing staff. We have developed Australia’s premier nursing course by paying attention to the quality and breadth of education and training students receive to help them graduate with a career. Patient outcomes must not be compromised by accepting dilution of educational standards.

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2. Fund placements
The nursing crisis isn’t new – it’s just been made much more acute by COVID. For the past decade we have known of a demographic cliff approaching in nursing and that more nurses are needed. However, the number of nursing places available is significantly limited as internships in hospitals are required to enable each student to put their theory into practice. Providing funding to private and public hospitals for hospital educators and nurse placement administrators would allow hospitals to increase the number of nurses we could enroll statewide.

It is clear that human resource issues need to be addressed to ensure nursing remains an attractive career choice. Funding for postgraduate programs that offer nursing professionals a career path to high-level, specialized and aligned careers would also be valuable.

3. Support Paths
One of the most valuable investments that the New South Wales government could make would be to support career paths and careers guidance for older students and school leavers interested in nursing. We need to maintain and even raise entry standards for school leavers and students of advanced age, but also provide support to ensure prospective students understand what a nursing career entails and how the journey begins – so there is a strong alignment between those who are interested in the profession and those who enjoy it and will be successful when they start studying or working.

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Funding for free preparatory courses for career transitions in advanced age, a coordinated recruitment campaign that allows access to all institutions, and stronger postgraduate pathways for nurses looking for new skills would contribute to a healthier future for nursing in our state.

While Victoria’s policy does not promise a long-term solution, it does increase the pressure on our state to urgently expand nursing education opportunities. Targeted funding to support promotions, internships and apprenticeship pathways will return greater long-term value to New South Wales if strategies are developed now in consultation with universities, unions and healthcare providers.

This piece first appeared in The Australian on 09/14

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