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How COVID-19 is affecting nurses' professional development

This article appears in: Nursing and Midwifery, Online study
Stock image of a nurse in PPE talking to someone via telehealth or video conference

COVID-19 has totally changed the way that we live, socialise and work. But for nurses on the frontline, it’s meant an even bigger shift in healthcare practice and patient care. So, how will these changes affect the future of nursing?

There have been many ‘unprecedented’ changes since COVID-19 hit, not least the impact it’s had on nurses.

“There are few other times in history that communities have been so aware of the important jobs nurses do,” says Nicole Norman, who lectures nursing degrees at CDU.

“The global community has looked to nurses to set the example of infection control and contactless interaction. And nurses have had to embrace this more heavily in their everyday work.”

Multiskilling, not upskilling

“The role, responsibilities and pressures for many nurses have likely expanded during COVID-19,” says Nicole.

Now more than ever we’re having to multi-skill. It’s not just about building on our existing skills; we’re having to learn entirely new skills.

Many nurses are now having to navigate budgetary pressures, new regulations for PPE, social distancing, staff having to quarantine, and more.

“Nurses are having to learn new skills – and quickly – in a whole raft of areas. This is in both specialist areas (such as in mental health and infectious disease control) and clinical facilitation and health services management.”

Critical communication

COVID-19 has really driven home how critical communication is to the way nurses work.

“We’ve really had to consider our interactions with patients and each other as nurses and clinicians,” says Nicole.

Not being able to hug patients or celebrate as a team is changing the way we do our jobs.

"It’s made us more aware of team work and partnership with the wider health care system,” she says.

“Face masks quite literally mask facial expressions and I think many are just only now realising how what an important communication cue expressions are. It’s really difficult for patients to read our facial expressions, so we need to think of alternative ways to give them information in an empathetic way.”

If visitor restrictions continue, nurses will have to find new and meaningful ways to involve family.

“We’ll have to learn to adapt and treat patients and include family members and carers through digital platforms, like video conferencing,” she says.

“We may now be better able to include people who may not have otherwise had access to visit or attend consults as a support person, such as overseas relatives.

“Similarly, telehealth has always been around, but it’s grown and expanded considerably. As it becomes more ‘mainstream’, more people will have easier access to health services.”

Telehealth will be the biggest change to how we care for people in the future.

"It marks a very different way of working, so we’ll need to upskill and train – whether that’s through postgraduate study, on the job, or through short courses.”

A renewed focus on mental health

health science in text

Mental health is going to be a big area for concern in the future, indicating another area that nurses may need to multi skill in. Yet, according to Australia’s Future Health Workforce, there’ll be a national under supply of 18,500 mental health nurses by 2030.

“Everyone will be impacted very differently by COVID-19, including our ‘at risk’ community, such as the elderly, victims of domestic violence and those with addiction issues,” says Nicole.

“But we’re not going to see the full impact of COVID-19 on mental health until we’re in recovery stage or potentially even five years down the track.

Learning more about mental health is so beneficial to nurses. It equips them to help such a wide variety of patients in all sorts of healthcare settings, including hospitals, aged care environments, education sectors and in the community.”

How to multiskill

Multiskilling can be done in lots of ways, including on the job and through formal professional development or postgraduate nursing courses, says Nicole. 

One thing is for certain though. With an ongoing focus on less contact, it’s likely that learning online will be important – both in and out of clinical settings.

“Moving forward, nurses will really have to embrace digital technology and virtual reality to learn,” says Nicole.

“Lecturers and facilitators won’t always be with students or nurses by the bedsides, so there’ll be a lot more remote checking in.”

Nicole says that although many nurses may feel they’re facing huge workload, there are flexible, fast ways to upskill. And increase their salary in the process.

A lot of postgraduate nursing courses can now be done online, with options to get a qualification in as little as six months.

“And census data has shown that the average annual income for nurses with a postgrad qualification will increase to more than $111,000 by 2022.”

Plus, it opens new doors. “Nursing’s great because it's not ‘one size fits all’,” says Nicole. “Throughout your career you can work in a variety of fields and upskill at any time. I've got nurses that start their careers in their early 20s right through until their early 60s.”

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