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Why nurses are instrumental in times of natural disaster and trauma

Photo: Health Times
In Australia, natural disasters are a part of life, with extreme weather events taking place in different parts of the nation on a semi-regular basis.

This reality was made abundantly clear in late 2018, when bushfires ravaged multiple Australian communities across three states, causing both extensive loss of property, and sadly, loss of lives.

Making up more than half of Australia’s healthcare sector, nurses play an integral role in managing the aftermath of such events.

“Nurses play an integral role in all aspects of community life, but this is particularly important when disasters or traumatic events occur,” says Dr Jessica Biles, Senior Lecturer, School of Nursing, Midwifery and
Indigenous Health, at Charles Sturt University.

“Nurses will be found assisting in a range of capacities, from trauma management   community mental health support. In regional communities, this is heightened further with many nurses taking on community responsibilities in their towns such as being active members of St Johns ambulance and CFA.”
Registered nurses are highly qualified professionals that have a depth and breadth of knowledge in their training that enables them to diversify their skills when required, which is why there are many situations where nurses will play an active role in disasters.

“Often in these circumstances it will be the responsibility of nurses to ensure that healthcare remains accessible to all,” says Dr Biles.

“Natural disasters and traumatic events stimulate a range of emotional and physical responses.

“All situations will be unique and will require the nurse to use all of her comprehensive skills in healthcare, from trauma to counselling.”

Leadership also plays a significant role in the effective management of such events, Dr Bile says.

“In many instances, day to day life in health services will continue, requiring nursing leaders to consider nursing contributions to both the traumatic events and the operational management of the health service.”

Along with the physical trauma which often takes place following a catastrophic event, nursing also need to be able to assist with a range of emotional and psychological responses to injury, shock and grief.

“Nursing is an accredited profession and the Australian and Nurses Midwifery Accreditation Council and AHPRA ensures that all undergraduate education is responsive to health across the lifespan.

“This is inclusive of skills and capabilities in emotional and physiological responses for both client and the nurse.

“Many situations involving grief and trauma will focus on non-traditional physical health assessment skills.”

As highly skill health professionals that encompass 57 per cent of the healthcare workforce, Dr Biles says nurses are well equipped to manage both physical and non-physical distress.

But that doesn’t make them immune to the emotional consequences of being exposed to people experiencing trauma.

“On a day to day basis they are often laced in situations that involve fellow humans in their most vulnerable moments.

“This can and does impact nurses on a personal level.

However, with undergraduate education and ongoing support from health services, nurses recognise the importance of self-care.”

In fact, Dr Biles says much of the research conducted over the past five years has focused on the importance of self-care to prevent burnout and caring fatigue.

“Organisations like the Australian College of Nurses offer publications and short course in resilience and self-care.

“Self-care will look differently for each nurse/individual but it’s about finding what works for you as an individual and making the self-care a habit.

“Mindfulness apps, breathing exercises, a healthy diet, exercise, have all been shown to help us combat stress.

“Many workplaces also offer free counselling or emotional support for health professionals.

“Normalising this support is imperative to the future of healthcare.

“The key is making adding these care routines into our lives, they then become a habit and are particularly useful when experiencing trauma or stress.”

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Nicole Madigan

Nicole Madigan is a widely published journalist with more than 15 years experience in the media and communications industries.

Specialising in health, business, property and finance, Nicole writes regularly for numerous high-profile newspapers, magazines and online publications.

Before moving into freelance writing almost a decade ago, Nicole was an on-air reporter with Channel Nine and a newspaper journalist with News Limited.

Nicole is also the Director of content and communications agency Stella Communications (www.stellacomms.com) and a children's author.