CRANAplus CEO Christopher Cliffe will depart the organisation, closing the chapter on 15 years of involvement across roles including state representative, board member, president, and finally as CEO, dedicated to representing remote health professionals in their efforts to deliver quality primary healthcare to Australians living out bush.
Mr Cliffe will finish his term following the organisation’s annual conference this month.
“It’s never an easy decision to leave a role, especially one that you have loved doing,” Mr Cliffe says.
“I decided early on that I should be able to achieve everything I wanted to for CRANAplus in five years as their CEO and after that it was time for someone new to take over the reins.”
Mr Cliffe joined CRANAplus upon returning to Australia after working overseas with the Red Cross in war and disaster zones and setting himself the new challenge of pursuing management roles.
“I landed a job as the Executive Officer/Director of Nursing of a small remote hospital in South Australia struggling with recruitment and defining a model of care that met community needs,” Mr Cliffe recalls.
“I was keen to do some innovative things and CRANA (as it was called then) were very supportive and generous with their time and expertise.
“I remember thinking what a great, wholesome mob they were, and saying to myself that I’d like to give back to them one day.”
The opportunity arose a few years later when Mr Cliffe acceped a vacant position on the Board of Directors.
The following year he became president, a role he held for seven years, before landing the job of CEO.
Looking back, Mr Cliffe says his early days as the president of CRANA, then still the Council of Remote Area Nurses of Australia, were focused on lifting the profile and standing of the organisation so it could have a bigger impact on broader issues regarding the health and wellbeing of people living in rural and remote Australia.
“With such a selective and small membership, it became a question of how do we sustainably grow to have the impact we want?”
The exclusive nursing organisation’s subsequent plans involved broadening its membership and building its operational capacity to generate revenue.
“I was very proud to be leading a nursing organisation that understood that their motivation for being wasn’t self-interest, but that of their patients and communities,” Mr Cliffe explains.
“Overwhelmingly, our members supported a change to our constitution to open our membership to all those who work in remote healthcare that shared our vision…and [that’s how] CRANAplus was born.
“Over the years I’ve been challenged that, by opening up to other disciplines, we are no longer a nursing body. I passionately refute this. CRANAplus continues to have a proud nursing history and it remains the lens through which we see the world. Our aim was, and continues to be, inclusivity.”
Mr Cliffe says owning the role of CEO forced him to learn a lot about his strengths and weaknesses and how to keep a level head under pressure.
The position also enabled him to continue the growth of his cultural competence and work alongside “truly inspiring” Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island leaders, professionals and communities.
But he says the daily reminders of discrimination and racism persist and must be stamped out of society.
Asked about the chief health issues facing Australians living in rural and remote, Mr Cliffe says a major shift is required, led by investment in workforce and comprehensive primary healthcare, in order to improve access and outcomes.
“We know that on just about every index rural and remoteness negatively impacts on the health of the population,” he says.
“Ensuring access to an educated, prepared, supported and resourced remote health workforce that is part of the broader health network is essential.
“However, we also know that the work they do with individuals, communities and governments in addressing the social, environmental, cultural and economic determinants of health is the only way to get significant and lasting improvements in the health of rural and remote Australians.”
During his time as CEO, Mr Cliffe encountered numerous challenges in a complex and ever-changing society.
Achievements are countless and signs of progress include implementation of CRANAplus’ inaugural Reconciliation Action Plan, improved standards through initiatives like the RAN certificate, and changes to the organisation’s constitution to leverage its resources to help rural nursing neighbours and international remote health partners.
Regrettably, the murder of outback nurse Gayle Woodford in South Australia in 2016 sticks out as perhaps the saddest and most challenging period,
“It quickly became clear that this was a ‘make or break’ moment for CRANAplus as we had a grieving, traumatised remote health workforce, a media spotlight like never before, employers rushing to mitigate risk and governments trying to work out if they had a role.”
Mr Cliffe says one of the biggest challenges was holding back from reacting to a small minority spouting blame and negativity via social media channels.
He says laws which have since come into effect requiring remote health workers to be accompanied when attending to after-hours callouts show the inroads made.
“Our workforces’ safety and security has received significant investment, infrastructure and even some changes to legislation,” Mr Cliffe says.
“Our challenge now is to ensure these are applied consistently across a fragmented system.”
Looking ahead, Mr Cliffe is unsure where his career post CRANAplus will lead but increasing his clinical work as a RAN is definitely on the cards.
Another certainty is his legacy on the organisation and appreciation of having had the opportunity to represent the organisation and its members as a collective striving to trigger important change.
“Being a RAN can be clinically challenging, professionally daunting, socially isolating and culturally exhilarating,” he says of the unique and critical role.
“I believe it’s just one of the many fantastic specialties of nursing and midwifery.”