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Australia's chief nurse Dr Rosemary Bryant: My career as a nurse leader

Dr Rosemary Bryant
Photo: Dr Rosemary Bryant
How do you become a nurse leader on a national and international scale? Karen Keast profiles the illustrious career of Australia’s preeminent nurse leader Dr Rosemary Bryant.


Rosemary Bryant was a teenager contemplating a career post-school when she decided to follow in the footsteps of several of her fellow classmates who were determined to become nurses.

“There were three others in my class at school who had a definitive view that they wanted to be nurses,” she recalls.

“I thought ‘that sounds okay to me. I will try that’.

“And here I am, 50 years later still doing it.”

Today, Dr Rosemary Bryant holds prestigious national and international positions, as Australia’s first Commonwealth Chief Nurse and Midwifery Officer and as the 26th president of the International Council of Nurses (ICN), working on issues vital to nurses and midwives and also health care provision.
“I have been a nurse for a long time,” Rosemary says, speaking from her Department of Health and Ageing office in Canberra.

“The things I really like about this role (Chief Nurse) and about the ICN role is that I am able to influence what happens to nursing.

“That’s important for nurses themselves but it’s also very important for the standard of nursing care that we are able to provide for the country, which is particularly important for me as a nurse.

“I think when I look back on my early years; that’s what really drew me to nursing.

“Although I really fell into it in a way, the fact that I started in it and made it my career I guess is a testament to how I really started to think about nursing when I was in my early 20s, which was a common time when people did leave.

“For me, I could see the difference that nurses could make to individuals’ lives, both patients and their families.

“I am not doing that on an individual basis now but what I am doing is helping to provide the structure in which nurses can work to their potential and provide that care for the community.

“That I think is what is at the heart of every nurse and there are 330,000 of us across the country; that’s what I guess drives us.”

Born in Melbourne, Rosemary completed her initial nursing training at Brisbane’s Princess Alexandra Hospital before spending a few years overseas but she spent most of her clinical career, about 20 years, in Adelaide, where she obtained the position of Director of Nursing at the Royal Adelaide Hospital.

Rosemary then moved to Victoria and became the Chief Nurse at the state’s Department of Health, before relocating to Canberra in 2000, where she held the position of the executive director of the Royal College of Nursing, Australia, for eight years.

Rosemary then went on to serve as the second vice president of the International Council of Nurses from 2005 to 2009, during which time she was also appointed to the newly created advisory role of Commonwealth Chief Nurse and Midwifery Officer, which she has now held for almost five years, and was elected president of the ICN in 2009.

Along the way, Rosemary has worked in private consulting undertaking projects on nursing and health, including consulting to the World Health Organisation, and was recognised as a Fellow of The Australian College of Nursing, was made an Emeritus Director of Nursing at Royal Adelaide Hospital and was awarded the degree of Doctor of the University by both the Queensland University of Technology and Flinders University.

Rosemary now advises the Minister for Health and the Department of Health and Ageing on a range of nursing and midwifery issues.

“It has a really very broad scope and so that encompasses a very wide range of advice, and advice that is around workforce issues; having the right number of nurses with the right qualifications in the right place is one of the ongoing challenges we have in nursing (world-wide).

“And then developing the nursing workforce is another really important area, particularly from the Commonwealth perspective…because we are facing an increase in the number of aged persons in the community and we are also having an increase in the incidence of chronic disease amongst our population.

“If you take just these two issues alone…it’s clear there’s a need for one; an increased number of nurses working in those two fields, and secondly; a need for nurses to be sufficiently educated in carrying out those roles.”

Rosemary says a range of Commonwealth initiatives have been delivered in the past few years to advance the nursing and midwifery professions, from opening up the Medicare Benefits Schedule and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme to nurse practitioners and eligible midwives.

A new funding scheme is also working to support the careers of nurses who work in GP practices, while the Workforce Compact will soon increase the salaries of nurses working in the aged care sector.

As ICN president, Rosemary has spent 12 years on the board of the federation of more than 130 national nurses associations, first founded in 1899.

It’s a role she says works to bring nursing and healthcare to the fore, particularly in developing countries.

“Nursing in some countries is not as well-resourced or indeed developed as it is in this country…so being president of the ICN holds quite a bit of weight in many countries,” she says.

“It’s important that when I go somewhere, for example I went to Rwanda a couple of years ago, it forces and gives nursing a profile in the country…not just for nursing itself but for our patients.”

In May, when the ICN holds its 25th Quadrennial Congress in Melbourne, Rosemary will step down as president and she also plans to retire from her Commonwealth role within the next 12 months.

As she prepares to bow out after reaching the pinnacle of her profession, Rosemary advises nurses and midwives aspiring to become nurse leaders to equip themselves with a vast range of experience.

“One of my fundamental pieces of advice is that you need a very solid clinical background of working and providing nursing care for people,” she says.

“Also being able to work across different settings and to get a broad base of experience that does really help in terms of consolidating your leadership directions, from my perspective.

“And it doesn’t hurt to have some leadership training; that’s important.”

Rosemary says the future of nursing remains “very bright”.

“We are an essential part of the health care system and the challenge probably lies in nurses being able to be more flexible and to enhance their practice and to meet the needs of the community,” she says.

“If I look back over 50 years of nursing, nursing has changed dramatically.

“We have been flexible and adopted but it is going to be even more important in the future.”

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Karen Keast

Karen Keast is a freelance health journalist who writes news and feature articles for HealthTimes.

Karen regularly writes for some of Australia’s leading health news websites and magazines.  In a media career spanning 20 years, Karen has worked as a senior journalist in newspapers and television. She has covered the grind of daily news and worked as a politics reporter at countless state and federal elections.

Since venturing into freelance writing five years ago, Karen has found her niche in writing about the health sector for editors, businesses and corporations.

Karen has interviewed the heads of peak health organisations in Australia and overseas, and written hundreds of news and feature articles covering the dedicated work of health professionals who tread the corridors of hospitals and health services, universities, aged care facilities and practices, day in and day out.

Follow Karen Keast on Twitter @stylemywords