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Written By

Hannah Gray


College of Healthcare Sciences

Publish Date

12 May 2021

Related Study Areas

No handmaidens to medical staff

Nurses have always played a vital role in our health systems. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of that role to our global societies. While the media heralded our nurses as heroes and angels for the work they have performed during the pandemic, JCU Academic Head of Nursing and Midwifery, Professor Caryn West, tells us why nurses are much more than we may think.

“Nursing has been a profession in its own right for many, many years now,” Caryn says. “And is the largest group in the global health workforce. Yet there are stereotypes of nurses that are still perpetuated. Nurses are called angels or superheroes and perhaps the most frustrating stereotype is that nurses are handmaidens to medical staff or simply in the hospital or health facilities to fill in gaps.

“Nurses are none of the above. We are well-educated professionals that undergo leadership training within our undergraduate degree, within postgraduate degrees, and within the health system itself.”

Not only are nurses trained to be leaders, but their positions within the healthcare system and settings are structured for leadership. “All large hospitals and healthcare settings will have not only a Director of Nursing, but an Executive Director as well,” Caryn says. “Positions cascade down from there into very well-structured leadership and management pillars.”

Exploring how nurses are leaders within their individual healthcare settings gives us insight into the valuable role that nurses play within the healthcare system on local, national, and global platforms.

Always frontlines, but not always front news

Though it may not always be an pandemic that nurses respond to, they are always on the frontline of health care. Whether it’s infection, prevention and control, military service, mental health or general practice, nurses are consistently working to make a difference to the health of their patients.

Whether it’s infection, prevention and control, military service, mental health or general practice, nurses are consistently working to make a difference to the health of their patients.

“Anybody who has spent anytime in a hospital environment will realise that it’s the nursing team who you spend the majority of time with,” Caryn says. “All health practitioners have important roles in person-centered care, but it is the nurses who are the constant in the patient journey.

“However, it’s usually an unfortunate episode that throws nurses and nursing into the limelight. COVID-19 has certainly provided the general public and other professional bodies with the opportunity to see nurses and midwives for the professionals we are .”

The pandemic has also showcased the commitment of the nursing profession as a whole. When there’s not a global crisis, nurses still go to work every day and perform a job that often involves long hours, shift work, high-stress and high-risk situations, often with extreme highs and devastating lows. This dedication and commitment has shone even brighter due to COVID-19.

“What the public has been so responsive to is the dedication and commitment of a global workforce of nurses and midwives who turned up every day because that is the moral and ethical compass within the profession that they’ve chosen,” Caryn says.

“It’s not about being a superhero. It’s about saying, ‘I’m skilled, I’m qualified, I’m a professional, and my time is now’." Professor Caryn West, JCU Academic Head of Nursing

"Nurses go to work knowing they’re at risk. They do it because the people that they’re caring for need the skillset, expertise and education that they have.”

Looking to the future, Caryn hopes that as the technology and models of health care change and innovate, the ways in which nurses are viewed will also change to better align with the reality of their work.

A new experience brings new responses

The effects of COVID-19 forced the healthcare system to adapt to the situation by developing new ways of delivering health care. Caryn suggests that these new methods are here to stay.

“The pandemic has pushed the general rollout of innovation in health care into overdrive, forcing ten years of innovation into one,” Caryn says. For example, at the height of the first wave of the pandemic, medical device companies assisted health care professionals to respond to the crisis by 3D printing ventilators so that there are now more intensive care beds with ventilation capacity.

Additionally, many people had to socially isolate and go into lockdown for extended periods but still required regular medical attention, so the response was to increase the use of digital information and communication technologies as a means of improving or supporting health care services.

Although these developments have increased the scope and ability of health care, Caryn points out that it is the professionals behind the device and delivery mechanism that make these healthcare services effective.

“Unfortunately, I can’t 3D print a nurse with the skills, capabilities, and expertise that the crisis calls for,” she says. “As much as we need devices that can support health care delivery, we also need nurses with the expertise and experience to ensure that such delivery has the best outcomes. The demand that the pandemic has put on our resources has shown that diversity and longevity in our nursing workforce is vital to the healthcare system.”

Caryn says nurses in every area and of every specialisation are needed. Nurses with extensive experience are also needed to guide the new graduates into the profession.

“The pandemic highlights the need for a balanced workforce. Diversity of experience, specialisation, age, ability, and skill is needed in order to meet the needs of the diverse communities we serve.” Professor Caryn West, JCU Academic Head of Nursing

Going into the future, ensuring a balanced workforce in our global health systems starts with valuing the work and leadership of nurses and midwives within those systems. As the public view of nurses evolves along with the evolution of healthcare practices and technology, the future of nursing will be much the same as it is now — highly-trained, highly-skilled, and committed — but with the key difference of more accurate respect and appreciation from the communities who rely on nurses.

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Featured researcher

Professor Caryn West

Academic Head of Nursing

Professor Caryn West is the Academic Head of Nursing and Midwifery for JCU Australia and Dean of Research for JCU Singapore. She maintains a strong international reputation having worked extensively with the World Health Organisation and Asia Pacific and Western Pacific countries. Key outcomes in this space has been the preparation of the health professionals of the future, and engagement in research that makes a difference.

Caryn has a diverse research portfolio within nursing and public health through her professional roles and awards including: an early career fellowship with the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), Directorship of the World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre (WHOCC) for Nursing, Midwifery Education and Research Capacity Building, Directorship of the Centre for Nursing and Midwifery Research at JCU and Deputy Directorship of the Centre for Disaster Solutions.

Caryn’s areas of research interest include disaster management, nursing education, and alcohol-related injuries in Australian Indigenous communities, drawn together through the theme of resilience.