Doing the right thing
The Lamp spoke to Melanie Robinson, the new CEO of CATSINaM (Congress of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nurses and Midwives), about the issues faced by her members and her priorities as the leader of the peak body for Indigenous nurses, midwives and students.
Q. Can you tell us about your background as a nurse and journey to lead CATSINaM?
A. I practised clinically for 8 years in adult and paediatric nursing, specialising in oncology and haematology. I worked at one of the big teaching hospitals in Perth called Princess Margaret Hospital. And I also worked in Derby Hospital in the Kimberley, an area where access to health care is a real challenge. Some of the health services you find in urban areas aren’t available there, and there are a lot of social issues and a lot of poverty and violence related to alcohol and drug issues which doesn’t lead to very good health outcomes. Prior to coming to CATSINaM I was a director of Aboriginal health strategy at the Perth Children’s Hospital (formerly Princess Margaret Hospital). Recently I undertook an Aboriginal Leadership and Excellence Development Program run by the WA Department of Health, and that gave me the confidence to apply for the CATSINaM role.
Q. What do you see as the big issues for your members in training?
A. I think getting through university and training is a challenge for any first-year nursing student, but it can be particularly challenging for Indigenous students. The transition from having a job and an income to becoming a student is really difficult. Then there are challenges within the university system, where racism is manifested in the classroom when students are talking about Aboriginal health in the Aboriginal culture and history unit. One of the other students will bring up a stereotype like “All Aboriginal people are useless’, and often our members are the ones who feel they will have to say, ‘That is not true, that is just a stereotype’. Later on, the tutor or lecturer will say ‘I’m glad you said that’, but we want them to initiate that discussion, and call it out and say, ‘This is not appropriate”. You see big drop- outs from first year to third year: as a peak body we can help to address that sense of isolation Indigenous students feel, and we can also support the academics to build their skills to be able to address issues like racism.
Q. Do Indigenous students face particular issues during placement?
A. One of our students was in her second-year placement when she overheard two clinicians talking about NAIDOC Week in the tearoom. One of the clinicians said: “I don’t know why we need these special things for Aboriginal people, why can’t they just integrate”. The other clinician looked really uncomfortable but still didn’t say anything. Senior staff need to call out these kinds of interactions. CATSINaM supports members by giving them some practical ways to deal with these kinds of situations without offending their colleagues. We also offer affiliate memberships to non-Indigenous health workers, and we run a Leaders In Nursing and Midwifery Education Network (LINMEN), a peer support network for nursing and midwifery educators and education providers to develop and share best practice in cultural safety training and education in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health, history and culture.
Q. What practical measures can help retention rates for Indigenous nursing students?
A. I bring my personal experience to this goal. Not long ago I completed a masters degree where I interviewed nine Aboriginal women who enrolled in nursing studies. After hearing their stories I created a series of recommendations that can be used by universities to help with their retention. They include students becoming members of CATSINaM and universities having a go-to person for advice on issues related to being an Indigenous student. Universities also need to have a Reconciliation Action Plan and provide opportunities to do cultural activities on campus – building that sense of pride in your identity. Access to financial support and knowing what scholarships are available is also really important. We are also working to get the government interested in investing again in the Indigenous cadetship scheme, where students work 30 days a semester in a hospital or a clinic setting. The students then receive a salary and allowance, which provides an income … they don’t have to worry about money, and they can focus on their studies. The cadetship scheme also gives the students clinical experience, which helps when they apply for Transition to Practice Programs. The scheme is coming to an end, but it should continue because it really does work.
Q. What are your goals as CEO of CATSINaM?
A. I’ve got to mention the CATSINaM Strategic Plan 2018–2023. There are four priorities, and one is about recruitment and retention of Indigenous nursing students, which I’ve just talked about. Another priority is to inform Indigenous health and education policy. Part of the advocacy we do involves going to different forums and workshops and identifying different ways that we can help. It also means being involved in that national workforce development at state and federal level. Another priority is providing a cultural hub for resilience and leadership development. This year we are looking at establishing mentor workshops to teach people who are interested in mentoring. We are also focused on building relationships with universities and hospitals and helping to ensure the best practice in culturally safe learning and service delivery. We have a range of people who run workshops for university and hospital staff. We have just got some funding to do an online program on cultural safety.
Q. How can the NSWNMA support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nurses and midwives?
A. Let people know that we are here and that we can be another source of advice and guidance. It is free for Indigenous people. Australia is a big country with a lot of complexity, so the more allies and partners we can establish the better. Sometimes you just do things because it is the right thing.