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Why coronavirus could mean fewer nurses

Aug 25, 2020 • 15m 12s

As our hospitals face pressure from coronavirus outbreaks, we’re relying on nurses more than ever. But at the same time, the pandemic means many nursing students may not be able to graduate. Today, Santilla Chingaipe on the looming shortfall in our health workforce.

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Why coronavirus could mean fewer nurses

294 • Aug 25, 2020

Why coronavirus could mean fewer nurses

[Theme music starts]

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am.

As our hospitals face pressure from coronavirus outbreaks, we’re relying on nurses more than ever.

But at the same time, the pandemic means many nursing students may not be able to graduate.

Today, journalist Santilla Chingaipe on the looming shortfall in our health workforce.

[Theme music ends]

RUBY:

The pandemic has put an unprecedented strain on our health care system and nurses are obviously a key part of that system. You have been investigating how coronavirus has impacted the people who are training to become nurses. So can you tell me a bit about what you've found?

SANTILLA:

Yeah, so I spoke to a bunch of final year students that study at the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne. The ACU is the largest provider of nursing graduates in the country.

RUBY:

Santilla Chingaipe wrote about the challenges nursing students are facing for The Saturday Paper.

SANTILLA:

And a lot of these young people talked about the impact that the pandemic has had on their studying and the distress and confusion that's come out as a result of the non-responsiveness as they see it from the institution, the government and the health regulator, which ultimately will impact whether or not they're able to to finish their degrees this year.

RUBY:

So why is that? What changes have occurred as a result of the pandemic that have led to this concern that students won’t be able to graduate?

SANTILLA:

Well, there are a couple of issues at play, right?

So the university says that they've told these students that they don't have to do the theory classes face to face because obviously Victoria's in stage four restrictions, but they've been given an exemption from the government to be able to carry out these practical lab classes. If you don’t attend face to face prac lab classes then you’re not able to graduate.

These students are very worried, obviously, because they're at risk of catching the virus. And if that happens, that then has an impact on whether or not they can go on placements.

RUBY:

Tell me about that, the placements?

SANTILLA:

So placements are these mandated hours that all nursing graduates have to complete before they can be qualified as registered nurses or enrolled nurses. And for these students at the ACU, the regulatory body has sort of deemed that 800 hours is the minimum that they need across the three years of their study to complete of placement.

But because of the stage four restrictions, it's made it very difficult for hospitals to get these students in because as you'd imagine with the second wave and the strain that these that the public health system is already under, having student nurses that are there to learn and observe things, they're kind of deemed, in some cases, unnecessary.

And it also depends from hospital to hospital, as some of the students told me, in some hospitals have been a little bit more accommodating. In others, not so much.

So, you know, what would ordinarily be quite easy in a normal year has just made it a little bit more difficult because of the pandemic and because obviously the public health system in Victoria is already under a lot of strain.

RUBY:

It is under a lot of strain. And does that mean there is a higher demand for nurses and nursing students now right?

SANTILLA:

So, one of the student nurses I spoke to Aaron McPherson and another student that I spoke to...

Archival Tape -- Aaron McPherson:

“Ah yeah, It’s double A, R-O-N…”

SANTILLA:

...work as registered undergraduate students of nursing. So they're called RUSONs. And this program was sort of started a couple of years ago, started as a pilot program to essentially meet the demands of the fact that there was a projected shortfall in the nursing workforce.

Archival Tape -- Aaron McPherson:

“They’ve been so supportive and they can’t wait for me to finish and start as a nurse…”

SANTILLA:

And this is now, I believe, a permanent program that allows second and third year nursing students to work in hospitals providing basic care and things like that.

And there's a set number of hours that these students can work under this program in a week. And many of them have been called in through the Department of Human Health Services to work as RUSONS across various hospitals.
But even with students that are on this RUSSON program, because the RUSSON program does not count to your placement hours. It is a job. Granted, it's still in a hospital and you are providing basic care, there is no recognition of that in terms of the course overall.

Archival Tape -- Aaron McPherson:

“You know, they’re telling me that if I don’t attend a mock simulation tomorrow at uni, that they told me was originally cancelled, that I’m going to fail the attendance…”

SANTILLA:

So these students who are working on the front lines may also not graduate because of the current situation.

RUBY:

So Santilla, what happens if these nursing students can’t graduate?

SANTILLA:

What's at stake is that we run the risk of not having enough nurses when we need them the most. You know, we're in the midst of a global pandemic and already facing a significant shortfall of frontline healthcare workers. And if these nurses, if these student nurses aren't able to graduate at the end of this year, that could have a significant knock on effect on our public health system.

RUBY:

We’ll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Santilla, do we know how big this shortfall in graduate nurses could be?

SANTILLA:

It could be potentially huge. I mean, already what we know is that, you know, we’re already facing a shortfall in our nursing workforce. Reports have projected that potentially as high as 120,000 nurses would be needed to meet the demands of an aging population in Australia.

And that's a big number. And this was before the pandemic. I mean, the sector was already suffering from poor retention rates, and I’m sure there will be a lot of work and a lot of studies that are done after the pandemic in terms of just what that looks like, going forward. So we weren't starting from a good point pre-pandemic. And, you know, you throw in this global pandemic. And the fact that in Victoria particularly, the never ending nature of these restrictions is adding to this. You know, if these restrictions, for example, go beyond the six weeks, that then impacts the placements for the rest of the year, you know, so you could potentially have hundreds of students that just don't graduate.

And one of the student nurses that I spoke to, Aaron McPherson, you know, talked about the impact that this shortfall of nurses could have as a result of this pandemic if these students don't graduate.

Archival Tape -- Aaron McPherson:

“If we maybe don’t put an exception on these hours, we’re not going to have 2000 graduate nurses for next year. Which is going to put another strain on nurses that are wanting to retire or things like that…”

SANTILLA:

He talked about the fact that two thousand nurses may not be available to enter the workforce next year, which puts just further strain on the system as it already is. You know, you've got nurses that will probably be looking forward to retiring and exiting the system, and rightly so. It's been a big year. The pandemic has had an impact. But while they're leaving, we don't have nurses going in.

Archival Tape -- Aaron McPherson:

“Like I just think there’s bigger things going on in the world right now than to penalize us for 10 hours short of our registration hours, if that makes sense?”

SANTILLA:

You know, this is really, really worrying stuff if it's not addressed adequately.

RUBY:

How are the relevant agencies here, the government, the universities themselves and also the regulator responding to this situation?

SANTILLA:

Well, it's been a very tricky one to get an adequate response.

When I spoke to the university, the executive dean, Michelle Campbell, said that this you know, that the university was doing its best to support the students. They've given the students a choice of whether or not, if they don't feel comfortable going to the prac classes on campus, they have the opportunity to make up those hours at a later stage. But obviously, the requirements of them to do the face to face prac classes. It was a requirement that the regulator needed.

And then the regulator, you know, sort of said that, yes, there's a certain number of hours required from the students, but they you know, they couldn't say anything more than that. Which in itself was, it was a little bit frustrating because these students have no representation, which I found very interesting because there's no student voice.

And the risk for these young people is just really, really high. Because, yes, make up the classes next year. But can you actually afford to do that? Can you afford to take another year off to go on placement and do all the things that's required of you? And that's asking a lot, because, you know, one of the students, Ella, said to me that as much as she loved what she did, she wasn't sure that she had the stamina to keep going

Archival Tape -- Ella:

“It’s definitely made me question how badly I want to do it. I don’t know what my stamina will be in this career, just because it’s already been so challenging and I haven’t started…”

SANTILLA:

And I don't blame her because, you know, you think about everything that they're trying to do, these young people are trying to do just to be able to finish. And the system is just making it so difficult for them.

Archival Tape -- Ella:

“And today we got an email saying, you have to attend classes on campus otherwise you won’t be eligible for your grad roles. It’s just exhausting, I’m so tired.”

SANTILLA:

And they just has to be a give somewhere. And at the moment, there isn't.

RUBY:

What does Ella think could or should happen?

SANTILLA:

I think Ella's talked about and many students said this as well, the need for a representative voice for these students that could advocate on their behalf.

Archival Tape -- Ella:

“I find it frustrating that I don’t think there’s much of a student voice in the situation. So like, we can email the university but if the hospitals who are the ones that are controlling the placements then, they are like we will talk to the hospital. And then often you get bounced between the two and they’re telling you to go talk to the other one…”

SANTILLA:

But from these young people in hearing just how the institution has not adequately supported them, was really, really concerning and frustrating as well for me, because I just sort of thought, here you've got people that are working so, so hard and just want to, you know, want to contribute by helping and being of service. And yet we're not making it easy for them.

You know, we're not making it easy for them. And we know that we're going to rely on these nurses specifically, in the years to come.

And it would just be really great for them to have their voices heard, for them to have the issues that are actually impacting them taken seriously by these people in these positions of power.

Archival Tape -- Ella:

“There isn’t a student voice at that table that’s saying hey, our students are having a really hard time, and they’re on the frontline of a global pandemic. Maybe we should be supporting them more or paying them, or giving out grants or something like that…”

SANTILLA:

They see that there's this narrative that sort of formed where they’re being hailed as heroes, nurses are heroes and clap for nurses and things like that. And yet you've got these people right at the bottom of the system who feel like they're not being supported enough when all they want to do is to be able to do their jobs, to be able to graduate, to be able to contribute in a meaningful way.

And yet the reality of, you know, the experiences that they're having and the lack of support that they're getting, whether it's from the university, whether it's from the state government, whether it's from the regulator, just falls short on what's necessary for them to be able to successfully complete their studies successfully, you know, contribute to our health system. And we know that we really, really need them.

What these young people have to say should really be taken seriously because it will have a long term impact on our public health system. And what happens to them this year could set the scene for what the next couple of years look like in the public health system, particularly here in Victoria. And if this isn't addressed. I don't think it's gonna be looking good.

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RUBY:

Also in the news…

Victoria has recorded 116 new coronavirus cases and 15 deaths, as Premier Daniel Andrews announced he will seek to amend laws to extend Victoria's state of emergency by another 12 months.

The Premier said while the current state of emergency was due to end on September 13, it would be needed well beyond that time.

Under the state of emergency, the Chief Health Officer is able to make legally enforceable public health orders, such as quarantine rules, mask wearing and physical distancing.

The state opposition has said it will oppose the new legislation.

And the High Court in Christchurch has heard new details about how the Australian terrorist who carried out attacks on two mosques in March 2019 killed 51 people and injured 40 more.

The Crown Prosecutor opened the sentencing hearing yesterday by describing how the shooter fired repeatedly and directly at men, women and children.

The sentencing hearing will continue through until Thursday, with a number of victims reading out testimony.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See ya tomorrow.

As our hospitals face pressure from coronavirus outbreaks, we’re relying on nurses more than ever. But at the same time, the pandemic means many nursing students may not be able to graduate. Today, Santilla Chingaipe on the looming shortfall in our health workforce.

Guest: Journalist and contributor to The Saturday Paper Santilla Chingaipe.

Background reading:

Student nurses struggling to graduate in The Saturday Paper

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem.

Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief.
Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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294: Why coronavirus could mean fewer nurses