Pandemic sows chaos in nursing education
Thousands of final year nursing students may not graduate this year as placements are cancelled and rosters disrupted.
A public health system that was already under-resourced and under stress before the pandemic, and which is now at breaking point with the outbreaks in NSW and Victoria, will face additional pressures in the future as many nursing students may be ineligible to graduate this year.
The Australian College of Nursing estimates that almost 20,000 nurses across Australia are due to graduate at the end of their final semester. Surveys conducted by the NSWNMA indicate that at least 40 per cent of students are at risk of being ineligible to complete the placements required of their three-year degrees, as COVID-19 disrupts the healthcare system.
In a report released earlier this year, the International Council of Nurses (ICN) warned that such disruptions “risk delaying or restricting the workforce supply, which on top of the predicted shortages resulting from the effect of COVID-19 could further exacerbate existing workforce shortages”.
“The strength of the future nursing workforce depends on a continuous flow of new registered nurses from the nursing education pipeline. Delays in the education sector will lead to failures into the future,” it said.
“Investment in nursing education and jobs is needed to improve retention of the current nursing workforce and address the global nurse shortage.”
The ICN report found that, one year on from the World Health Organization declaring COVID-19 a pandemic, nearly one in five of the national nursing associations surveyed reported an increase in the number of nurses leaving the profession. Ninety per cent of those leaving cited heavy workloads, insufficient resources, burnout and stress as factors that were driving them out of the profession.
In Australia, the 2020 Aged Care Workforce Census reported that 29 per cent of employees had left their jobs in the 12 months up to November 2020 and there were almost 10,000 vacant roles in aged care alone.
That was before the current COVID-19 outbreaks in Victoria and New South Wales.
Nursing students face anxiety, financial stress and an uncertain future
NSWNMA Assistant Secretary Shaye Candish says the COVID-19 pandemic is causing havoc for NSW nursing students.
“Final year students are trying to complete their practical placements; they are suffering financial stress from funding travel and accommodation to unpaid placements, and their eligibility to graduate is uncertain,” she said.
“Every nursing student has to complete a minimum 800 hours of placements to register. You can’t register and become an RN without those hours.
“If students can’t graduate, it is also going to have an impact on the workforce next year, which is already suffering from staff shortages.”
Shaye says students have told the Association they are often being placed in hospitals far from where they live, potentially breaching COVID-safe policies.
“Students who live in the inner city are being sent into the eastern suburbs, and people in the eastern suburbs are being sent into the inner city,” she said.
There is also come confusion about whether placements in vaccination centres will count towards a student’s 800-hours requirement.
“While up to 40 hours of work in a COVID-19 vaccination clinic can be counted towards a degree as clinical placement, there have been many instances of people spending two-week or four-week placements in a COVID-19 vaccination hub, with uncertainty over whether those hours count,” says Shaye.
After her practical placements were disrupted by COVID-19, Emilie Heath, a second-year international Master of Nursing student at the University of Sydney, is concerned that she will not be able to complete her degree before she has to return home to Canada.
“My very first placement in 2020 was cancelled, and I have been behind ever since,” says Emilie, whose year group has been faced with constant cancellations and interruptions to their placement since they commenced their two-year degrees in 2020.
“I need a minimum of 860 hours to graduate, and I have 140 hours of placement left to complete. AHPRA has changed the hours to 800, but the University of Sydney adheres to their own rule of law, which is 860, which I think is completely unfair.”