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More than a quarter of primary health care (PHC) nurses are planning to quit within the next five years due to rising workloads and increased stress and burnout, according to a new survey conducted by the Australian Primary Health Care Nurses Association (APNA).

The looming exodus puts Australia at risk of not having enough trained PHC nurses to staff aged care homes, general practices and other primary healthcare settings in coming years, says APNA.

The survey of 1,061 primary health care nurses found more than four in five felt exhausted or stressed at work and more than three-quarters reported working overtime and feeling burnt out. Alarmingly, over a quarter (28.73%) of PHC nurses said they plan to quit within the next two to five years.

APNA President Karyn Booth says primary health care nurses, who work across GP’s, schools, in the community, correctional facilities and aged care, have performed “almost superhuman efforts” to keep the community safe during COVID-19. Yet, while health authorities recruited more staff and provided extra resources to help with hospital admissions, the primary health care sector was largely forgotten.

Recent moves to bring forward booster shots and end COVID restrictions exacerbated the problem, severely impacting the primary health care nurse workforce, with thousands of sick nurses furloughing, leaving an unmanageable workload on remaining nurses.

The peak body has proposed bringing nursing students into primary health care settings to carry out supervised activities offers a solution to easing the pressure on PHC nurses, giving students a valuable opportunity to develop their skill-set and also training the next generation of experienced PHC nurses.

It suggests thousands of nursing students have been unable to complete the clinical placements required to graduate due to pandemic restrictions. If not urgently addressed, an increasing backlog will mean there are not enough trained PHC nurses in coming years.

“Our primary health care nurses desperately need help, and nursing students – many thousands of whom find themselves unable to get the clinical placement experience they need – are a ready-made solution,” Ms Booth said.

“Nursing students can be utilised in primary health care to triage patients, help with health checks, and help registered nurses with vaccine clinics and other clinical activities.

“More importantly, supervised student nurses, using approved scripted checklists, could do welfare calls to people at home who are sick with COVID, and escalate treatment to registered nurses or general practitioners as needed.”

An APNA-run nursing student placement program allows nursing students to play a role in the COVID-19 response while accruing clinical placement hours. There are already 118 Victorian and 19 interstate organisations registered with the nurse placement program. Building up the program so it can be coordinated nationally would provide a workforce pipeline to fill future staffing shortages, the peak body says.

“What better way can there be to build the skill-set and professional capability of student nurses, and strengthen capacity in primary health care services, than to actively involve them in the greatest health challenge of recent times?”

Second-year Monash University nursing/midwifery student Irene Thorson said being part of the program allowed her to learn practical skills, while freeing up senior nurses.

“I was given quite a bit of responsibility and trust – I helped with patient screening, health histories, blood pressure monitors, ECGs – the things that take time,” she said.

“You go in expecting to be thrown in the deep end, but when I actually got in there, I understood just how important primary health care nurses are. The nurses deal with a lot of normal responsibilities such as health screenings and wounds, as well as being overrun with COVID vaccinations. That’s a whole new job for them but they don’t have any extra staff to do it.”