National Nursing Forum: Nurses urged to step up to the political arena

Former South Australian Labor MP and nurse and midwife Annabel Digance. Photo credit: Howl Visual Media.

Nurses should step up to the political arena and play a greater role in shaping health policy, delegates were told at this week’s Australian College of Nursing’s (ACN) National Nursing Forum in Hobart.

Nationally and internationally renowned nursing leaders gathered for the 2019 National Nursing Forum, running under the theme Nursing Now – Power of Policy, to share their voice, expertise and research in trying to improve the health and wellbeing of all Australians.

Former South Australian Labor MP and nurse and midwife Annabel Digance urged nurses and midwives to make their voices heard at the political table during her keynote address – Power, Policy, Politics, People.

“We all know that the healthcare workforce is the largest workforce and nursing is the biggest chunk of that,” Ms Digance said.

“We are a very powerful piece of the puzzle; we intimately know nursing and midwifery and our patients. Nurses would do well to step up in the political arena.”

Of the 227 Parliamentary seats in the Senate and House of Representatives, there are currently only two nurses; in contrast to 24 lawyers and 19 political lobbyists with interests ranging from mining and pharmaceuticals to gambling and the financial sector, delegates heard.

“This is a big red flag which can lead to risky policy,” Ms Digance said.

Nurses could prosecute their case but needed to engage with ministers and at a local level, she added.

“Do politicians know what we do? You need to be politically engaged and to champion evidence based research.”

Fellow keynote presenter, Heart Foundation of Australia CEO Adjunct Professor John Kelly, who received an ACN Distinguished Life Fellowship at the forum, argued nurses were still a bit too complacent during his talk – Leading change through policy settings and advocacy.

Mr Kelly suggested nurses must exploit opportunities on the back of 2020 being marked as the International Year of the Nurse and the current global Nursing Now campaign.

“Nurses need to frame their positions in a language understood by politicians, policymakers, the media and the public. Nurses need to understand and get involved in the everyday politics of life. We need to be part of a dialogue that goes beyond speaking amongst ourselves in the profession.”

“We need to develop positive relationships at a local level. Communities drive change and that’s what politicians listen to. We need to foster relationships with politicians and talk with them regularly. We have solutions to their problems. They need to achieve their policy objectives – we have to make them look good so they give us the money to do that.”

Organisations including the ANMF have provided evidence-based policy which has led led to positive outcomes for healthcare delivery, he said.

Evidence-based policy helps inform the government about the value of nursing work, including its contribution and quality, cost-effectiveness and social cohesiveness.

Mr Kelly urged nurses to focus their efforts on where they could garner some “quick wins” and be patient on complex issues such as addressing the health needs of the disadvantaged.

Other key sessions at the conference included Emeritus Professor Lynette Russell, who delivered the ACN 2019 Oration.

Professor Russell said the nursing profession has considerable power to influence not only the profession itself but also the healthcare sector more broadly when unites together.

“One of the ways in which we can come together and speak with a combined voice can be through the role/s played by our professional nursing organisations – organisations that are only as strong as those who participate and contribute to them.”

Tasmania’s Chief Nurse and Midwife, Adjunct Associate Professor Francine Douce, spoke of similar objectives, arguing nurses need to be better represented in health policy development.

“We are ideally positioned to step up and we have a professional obligation to lead from the front to help shape the care now and into the future. Imagine the things that can happen when we work collectively. There are 400,000 nurses and midwives – we are a force to be reckoned with.

“We need to participate in activities when they occur. There is a groundswell when we work as a collective – good things can happen.”

ACN CEO Kylie Ward said nurses needed to be proactive about transforming health in Australia.

“When I am travelling the country, speaking with nurses, one issue that comes up consistently is that our profession is wilfully ignored and even locked out of health care discourse and policymaking,” Ms Ward said.

“Our profession has decided not to meekly sit on the side lines waiting to be asked for our ideas or views. Nurses all around the country are proactively transforming health and aged care in Australia.”

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