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Most people take their health for granted until something goes wrong, says Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner Lorna Scott.

For nurses and midwives, notoriously better at looking after patients than themselves, self-care is a skill many neglect.

“They often think it will never happen to me and it’s only until something happens to somebody close to them that they take action and think, maybe I better get this checked out,” Lorna says.

One of the trailblazers in women’s health nursing since the 1980s, Lorna has helped women keep on top of their health and wellbeing for more than three decades. Currently working across several communities in NSW’s Lower Hunter Region, she provides holistic care and support across areas including contraception, sexual health, cervical screening, menopause, reproductive health, incontinence, and domestic violence.

Lorna is also a Champion of Jean Hailes for Women’s Health, Australia’s leading not-for-profit organisation dedicated to improving the health of women, girls and gender-diverse people. For her part, she actively promotes the need for high quality, affordable and accessible healthcare for all, and focuses on empowering women to engage in their health and wellbeing.

Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner Lorna Scott and a Champion of Jean Hailes for Women’s Health

For this year’s Jean Hailes Women’s Health Week, an annual campaign that each September calls on women across the country to make good health a priority, Lorna is encouraging women to put themselves first, take the time to listen to their bodies, and reflect on what needs to be done to maintain their own health.

“One of the main things is taking time out for yourself because often women end up absolutely exhausted with the multiple roles that they’re carrying out,” says Lorna, who heads out for a walk with her dog, and knits, to de-stress.

“Often, it’s just taking that time out, whether it be to sit and read a book, or do some exercise, it’s vitally important.”

Equally as crucial, according to Lorna, is maintaining routine health checks.

“So often they can pick up things before you’re aware of it and if everything’s fine you’ve ticked them off the box, so you don’t need to worry about them.

Taking time out for yourself

“From a general lifestyle point of view, monitor your diet, make sure you’re getting regular exercise, and double check how much caffeine and alcohol you’re consuming because of the impact it can have.”

Lorna believes the goal to improve women’s health has never been so important following the ongoing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Over the past two years, many routine health-screening checks were delayed, she reveals. When she sees patients these days it’s typically not just for one issue but many.

Troublingly, many rural GPs began seeing clients in car parks, meaning many women stalled cervical screening. Another barrier to health access remains cost, with bulk-billing GPs becoming rarer.

“One of the thing that I found most distressing was a woman that had found a lump in her breast and she said ‘I didn’t address it because I was supporting one daughter through her HSC and another one was trying to get married and I had to keep delaying it and I didn’t think me going to get this lump addressed was a good idea at the time’. Unfortunately, by the time we got her in, her prognosis wasn’t as good as it might have been, which, from a clinician’s point of view, has been hard to deal with.”

The pandemic has also significantly impacted nurses and midwives working across the country, particularly in NSW, which does not have nurse-to-patient ratios and battled several COVID waves.

“During COVID, a lot of people were suddenly getting moved to areas that they were not used to working in, which caused a lot of stress for a lot of nurses,” explains Lorna, who is Vice President of the Council of the NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association (NSWNMA).

“With the lack of ratios, and nurses often being off sick due to contracting COVID, the demands on staff and the extra overtime that they had to work was well and truly getting out of hand. There was also social isolation, because we couldn’t just debrief in tea rooms.”

After COVID derailed the chance to celebrate Jean Hailes Women’s Health Week for two years, Lorna and her colleagues will this year use the awareness event to focus on the importance of female nurses and midwives looking after themselves.

During the week, Lower Hunter Community Health will run two separate education sessions for staff, and hold a lunch to debrief about key health issues and concerns. Staff will also be given the opportunity to get cardiovascular checks that look at cholesterol, blood sugar, blood pressure, and weight. Cervical screening will also be available.

“We found that staff were getting really quite burnt out and just from discussions in the tearoom, we identified that a lot of the staff here weren’t looking after their own health,” Lorna says.

“So this year, we’ve decided to focus on community health staff to give them some time out in their really busy day to start focusing on their own health.”

Lorna, who regularly taps into the wide range of free health resources on Jean Hailes’ website, which include articles, health fact sheets, fitness tips and webinars, encourages all women and health professionals to follow suit to learn more.

Looking ahead, with nurses and midwives continuing to work through the pandemic, amid understaffing, heightened workloads and rising burnout, Lorna suggests finding the time to look after yourself remains paramount.

“Nurses often feel really guilty for saying no,” Lorna says.

“Essentially, it’s putting yourself first to make sure that what you’re actually doing is getting time for you and practising that bit of self-care.”

Jean Hailes Women’s Health Week runs from 5-11 September –

Nurses interested in Women’s Health are encouraged to find more information at  Jean Hailes