“It [primary healthcare] is one of the fastest growing healthcare areas in Australia and we need to keep people well in the communities where they live,” says nurse researcher in primary healthcare, Susan McInnes.
“Rather than focusing on treatment, we need to focus on preventative care, behavioural change and health promotion.”
Susan is an early career researcher and lecturer in the School of Nursing at the University of Wollongong.
Her roles include coordinating the primary healthcare unit, plus the transition to professional practice for third year nursing undergraduates entering the profession.
In February this year, Susan was named one of five global emerging nurse researchers and scholars for 2020 by The Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing (Sigma), taking out the award for the Oceania region.
Since 2015, the Emerging Nurse Researcher/Scholar Award has recognised outstanding individuals from each of Sigma’s seven global regions who have influenced the nursing profession through their work.
“Honoured and privileged and proud, I was all of those things,” Susan says of being named this year’s Oceania winner.
“The fact that I was nominated by my peers; that was enough to validate my role as a primary healthcare researcher but to actually win Oceania that was beyond my realms of belief so I was very proud.”
Susan trained as a nurse at the Camden Hospital in New South Wales and worked clinically in theatres after becoming qualified as a registered nurse.
She took a break from nursing to raise a family but returned to the profession years later, undertaking a Bachelor of Nursing at Western Sydney University, which sparked an interest in shifting into academia and honing in on primary healthcare.
Susan credits Liz Halcomb, Professor of Primary Health Care at the University of Wollongong, with inspiring her to pursue research into primary healthcare, saying her mentorship helped develop a burning interest in promoting primary healthcare nursing, raising the profile of the speciality and researching its broad aspects.
The coordinator of the primary healthcare unit at UOW and co-supervisor of three PhD candidates conducting research into primary healthcare, across areas including general practice nurse interventions, communication between general practice nurses and patients, and preparing undergraduates to work in general practice, Susan believes the specialty area remains crucial to better health outcomes.
Unique to UOW, all primary healthcare tutors, across six campuses, are primary healthcare nurses themselves.
“That’s been invaluable to raising the profile of primary healthcare nursing and making it real,” Susan suggests.
“Students want authenticity. My tutors have that experience and are able to pass these experiences onto the students. The feedback from students certainly indicates we are raising interest in primary healthcare nursing.
“They come into nursing thinking ‘I want to go into ED or paediatrics or maternity. By the time they find out more about our unit, more and more are saying ‘I didn’t realise there were these diverse career opportunities in primary healthcare’ and they are now looking at it.”
Susan’s research projects include helping to develop and inform the mental health practice standards for general practice nurses in Australia, preparing undergraduates to work in primary healthcare and for the first time, tracking UOW’s nursing graduates entering all settings to examine their graduate year experience.
More recently, Susan has been working with a team of researchers on a project that seeks to understand the impact of COVID-19 on the primary healthcare nursing workforce.
Susan is hopeful her Emerging Nurse Researcher/Scholar Award can help open up international collaborations and further her goals.
“In the environment we’re in at the moment [COVID-19] we’re seeing this throughout many areas of research and nursing research won’t be any different. So I certainly look forward to opening up collaborations internationally through meeting other recipients and contacts through Sigma.”
Asked to list the greatest challenges facing primary healthcare, Susan says overcoming stigma still remains the biggest barrier.
“ED and ICU are viewed by students as high-profile career options and nursing in primary care is seen as somewhere you go when you retire,” she explains.
“We just need to reverse that concept because it is not where older nurses go to retire. It’s a vibrant and diverse place to be.”
Nevertheless, she believes inroads are being made, with undergraduate nursing students increasingly taking up opportunities to connect with various GPs in catchment areas.
“I know that not all universities provide primary healthcare as an undergraduate subject and I hope that continues to change and it grows. I think the University of Wollongong is leading the way in promoting and raising the profile of the specialty.”
The year 2020 also marks the International Year of the Nurse and Midwife and Susan says it’s been great to see the profession recognised, albeit in unusual circumstances, amid the global coronavirus pandemic.
“What’s been seen universally is the dedication of nurses to providing care and being there for patients,” she says proudly.
“We are the most trusted profession, we just need to get at those policy tables more and need to be listened to as a group because we have a lot to offer, not just in nursing care, but in developing policies and providing that insight.”