Time to act to keep our nurses and midwives safe

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Nurses treat the eyes of people who continue to search for the remains of family members near Fuego volcano in Escuintla, Guatemala, in 2018. Photo: CNS, Luis Echeverria, Reuters

They are the single largest health profession in Australia.

Their navy uniform is immediately recognisable. In the course of their daily work they face horrific violence while trying to help us at our most vulnerable moments.

But they are not the police. They are nurses and midwives working in NSW’s public hospital system.

International Year of the Nurse and Midwife

This year has been named by the UN as the International Year of the Nurse and Midwife. It serves to remind us of the trusted role our nurses have played in our healthcare system, and our broader community for more than 150 years now.

The nursing profession in NSW has a rich tradition of service.

Nurses in our public system can be traced back to 1866 when Sir Henry Parkes wrote to Florence Nightingale requesting nurses for the colony’s Sydney Institute. Nightingale agreed, sending a delegation of nurses to work in the Sydney Infirmary in 1868.

It’s time to stop it: nurses face serious and undeserved levels of violence in their daily work. Photo: DIAC images/Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0

The nursing profession in the Catholic health sector can be traced back even further. The Sisters of Charity, founded by Mary Aikenhead, arrived in Australia in 1838 and have been providing care at St Vincent’s Hospital since 1857.

But today there is a blight on our health system – the level of violence towards the nurses and midwives we so depend on is too high.

80 per cent experience violence

A 2019 study commissioned by the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association and carried out by the University of Technology Sydney found that 80 per cent of participants had experienced violence at work in the past six months. Half had faced violence in the previous week.

It also found it was not just a public hospital problem – 69 per cent of nurses in the private sector had also experienced violence in the previous six months. With more than 380,000 nurses those statistics add up to real world harm. After a 12-hour shift confronting this horror, nurses go home. They return to being a mother or father, a friend, a daughter or son, but the trauma of their jobs stay with them.

“After a 12-hour shift confronting this horror, nurses go home. They return to being a mother or father, a friend, a daughter or son, but the trauma of their jobs stay with them.”

Nurses help us during the best and worst moments of our lives. Whether it is the birth of a child or the illness or death of a loved one, nurses are a source of care and comfort in the sterile world of medicine and hospitals.

Yet they are left exposed to the worst of human behaviour. Whether it is an ice-addicted patient, or someone suffering a psychotic episode, perhaps an angry, grieving family member, too often nurses receive an unfair share of blame and violence.

The 2019 study found an injury rate of 28 per cent as a result of violence in our hospitals. A nurse exercises a professional, practical kindness.

The women and men who take on this role are not trained boxers or cage fighters – but people who believe in helping others.

Resources essential to protect nurses

Facing violence at work is never acceptable, but in our hospitals, where we go to heal, it is completely unforgivable that it has reached this level.

This is why it is so important our healthcare systems are properly funded and resourced, so that crisis care can be given and nurses can have more protections in place at hospitals.

In 2020 we celebrate our nurses and midwives, but we must also commit to ensuring they have a safe workplace.

John Watkins AM is the Chair of Catholic Health Australia