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Up to 20,000 registered nurses will undertake a new online training program to upskill in intensive care under the latest move by the federal government to bolster the health system in order to meet demand as the COVID-19 pandemic escalates.

Announced today, the free online course will enable nurses to join the delivery of care in intensive care and high dependency units across Australia and support the doubling of the number of intensive care beds to respond to the crisis.

The government is injecting $4.1 million in funding for the training program, which will be delivered by e-learning provider Medcast.

The course covers three key topics – acute respiratory management, high dependency unit nursing and critical care nursing – with training including lectures, webinars and quizzes on technical information and requiring 40 hours of overall study.

Speaking on ABC Radio’s RN Breakfast program this morning about the initiative, Australia’s Chief Nursing and Midwifery Officer Alison McMillan said nurses are at the forefront of the COVID-19 fight and that the move is about building capacity to meet the challenge head-on.

“We’re not short [of nurses] at the moment,” Ms McMillan explained.

“We have an existing, highly skilled and trained intensive care nurse population out there who are meeting the demands today.

“This won’t happen all at once, it’s a slow growth and so we’re building that capacity over time so that we can be prepared.”

Ms McMillan stressed nurses would not be forced to undertake the training and step up to the ICU frontline.

“We’re not going to conscript people to do this. They have to be comfortable that their skills and knowledge is [suitable] and that this is something they want to do. I think we will find that there will be many nurses out there that will want to take on this training. It’s a great opportunity, it’s provided free and it will be in a very supported environment with already highly trained ICU nurses who will work with them as a part of a team and they’ll be well supported to do that across the system.”

The new online training program is among a number of initiatives introduced by the government as it ramps up its efforts to boost the nation’s health workforce capacity in order to tackle COVID-19.

The government has also funded an online refresher course, delivered through the Australian College of Nursing, to allow registered nurses who are not currently in clinical practice to update their knowledge to re-join the health workforce.

It mirrors a recruitment drive to encourage 40,000 retired nurses, midwives, doctors, pharmacists and other healthcare professionals to join the fight against the virus.

AHPRA is establishing a short-term pandemic response sub-register for the next 12 months to assist  with fast-tracking the return of experienced and qualified health practitioners to the workforce.

The sub-register enables health professionals who previously held general or specialist registration and who left or moved to non-practising registration in the past three years to return to practice.

The sub-register, expected to be in place by April 6, will operate on an opt-out basis.

With nurses being called on to join the frontline amid the pandemic, Ms McMillan was pressed on reports regarding shortages of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for nurses and many being directed to re-use masks.

She said the government is trying to provide as much information as possible.

“The advice is very clear and it’s out there for all the health professionals to see about when and where they should be using the appropriate PPE,” she said.

“I do appreciate that there are people who believe that they should be wearing it all the time but we’ve been very open and frank about the limitations of our current supply so we need to preserve the supply of PPE as much as we can by making sure it’s only worn at those times for when it’s indicated.”

The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF) welcomed the government’s strategy to provide additional training for nurses.

“This will maximise the capacity of experienced, registered nurses and prepares them to boost the intensive care nursing workforce as needed in dealing with the unfolding pandemic,” ANMF Federal Secretary Annie Butler said.

“During infectious disease outbreaks such as COVID-19, nurses are at the frontline for emergency response efforts. Nurses identify, manage, and treat patients with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 infection, as well as ensure ongoing and everyday healthcare activities continue.”

Registered nurses interested in undertaking the online critical care education program can visit Medcast or contact them on 1300 652 046.

For further information on the online refresher course provided through ACN click here