When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Australia, registered nurse Wayne Burns joined the response, pivoting into carrying out swabbing and, not long after, vaccinations on the NSW Mid North Coast. As the threat settled, he contemplated his next move and stumbled upon remote area nursing.
“I worked with a nurse at a little hospital in NSW who had done this program [Transition to Remote Practice Program] a long time ago and she just spoke about the opportunities that working remote brings,” Wayne recalls.
“I just got a bit excited at the prospect of something different and something new every day. I saw the adventure and I wanted to get outside of the hospital and have a look around and see what else was out there.”
The 12-month program, funded by the Northern Territory Government, aims to boost the NT’s remote nursing workforce by helping nurses build their skills in providing services and care to remote communities. This includes emergency care and general primary healthcare issues, with a focus on culturally safe practice and Indigenous health needs.
In February, Wayne began his post at the Jabiru Community Health Centre, a small mining town about 240 kilometres south-east of Darwin, on the edge of the Kakadu National Park. The town, which is a busy tourist destination, has around 1,000 residents, with a 50/50 split between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
Wayne, who previously worked in surgical, intensive care, and rehabilitation for a decade, says his new role covers the gamut of health issues.
“We see a lot of tourists. We also deal with a lot of chronic disease. The Aboriginal health chronic disease is massive here and my portfolio here is preventative and chronic disease management,” he explains.
“I do a lot of risk assessment and general primary health checks and chronic disease health checks, mostly for the Aboriginal population. But we’ve seen lots of things that come through the door that require emergency evacuation for locals to tourists and everyone in between.”
Once he completes the program, Wayne will receive a Transition to Primary Health Care Certificate, enabling him to apply for remote area nurse positions. Throughout the year-long experience, nurses also receive access to numerous education courses, including remote emergency and vaccines, while nurse educators provide clinical support as required.
After eight months working in Jabiru, Wayne describes his career change from the hospital to the bush as eye-opening and rewarding, both professionally and personally.
“In the hospital environment we talk a lot about patient-centred care and it’s an absolute fallacy,” Wayne argues.
“There’s no such thing as patient centredness in the hospital, it’s all clinician driven. It’s all about key performance indicators, it’s all the rush and the budgets and resource management and time-management; everything is stretched. But coming out here it literally is about getting the most value for our clients. We’re partnering with consumers and, hopefully, meeting the quality in healthcare standards.”
Wayne suggests that the autonomy and scope of practice he is afforded as a remote area nurse extends beyond anything he’s experienced before. He considers the professional development, and exposure he’s getting, invaluable.
“Having a very holistic approach to healthcare, or to nursing, and doing what we do, we’re actually more than just a nurse,” he says proudly.
“Our scope is massive compared to working in a hospital. This is just professionally. Then there’s the personal stuff of being a long way away from home, yet, I’m right here on the edge of Kakadu National Park, so I’ve been able to go out into the national park and have an experience that I never would have imagined with work.”
While the program has brought newfound reward, Wayne admits it’s come with its challenges, namely having to leave his wife and four children behind in NSW. They joined him in Jabiru for about six weeks, and his youngest daughter, 16, has stayed on.
“It’s just us conquering the world for the time being,” he says.
For Wayne, the best part of the job, undoubtedly, is providing quality care to the Jabiru community and Australians who need it the most.
“Some of the people who live here live in third-world standards, third-world accommodation. That culture shock of seeing how they live and where they live and actually providing a quality service that meets their needs and goals, I have found that challenging and rewarding.”
For registered nurses considering following Wayne’s path to becoming a remote area nurse, he encourages looking into it the program more closely and weighing up whether the career change is right for them.
“It’s a great program and there’s great opportunities to be had. Not everything is perfect, there’s a lot of personal and professional growth to be had and it’s not going to suit everybody but I’ve really enjoyed it and I’d encourage anybody to have a go.
“For nurses, I’d encourage them to become very familiar with their assessment skills before they come and to have good family support and connections as it can release pressure and is important to protect their own social and emotional wellbeing.”
While Wayne’s stint in Jabiru is due to finish up early next year, he has no plans of heading back home to NSW.
“I just hope to be here providing a quality service as best I can, and to really enjoy what I do. The time I stop enjoying what I do I’ll take a ride back on a plane and do something else.”