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Nurses suggest ways to boost rural retention

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The chronic nurse shortage in rural and regional Australia is driven by factors like ageing populations, growing communities and a fatigued workforce.

With regional and rural hospitals grappling with high workloads and funding constraints, supporting early-career nurses might not be a top priority. However, retaining graduate nurses is crucial and a University of South Australia study has identified practical strategies—suggested by nurses themselves—that require minimal resources and can be implemented locally.

Projections indicate that by 2030, Australia might face a shortfall of 123,000 nurses. The impact of this shortage is particularly pronounced in rural and regional areas, prompting the National Nursing Workforce Strategy to prioritise addressing this issue as one of its core objectives.

Amid competition between rural and metropolitan hospitals for fresh nursing graduates, comprehending the needs and preferences of regional nurses is pivotal, yet research in this area has been lacking.

Closing this gap, a recent UniSA study sheds light on the perspectives of early-career registered nurses on enhancing nurse retention in regional areas.

Titled “Addressing the challenges of early career rural nursing to improve job satisfaction and retention: Strategies new nurses think would help,” the study was conducted by Heidi Rose, Dr. Gemma Skaczkowski and Associate Professor Kate Gunn, and published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing.

Heidi Rose, a clinical nurse based in Mount Gambier, explains that the study involved nurses from regional areas across South Australia, Queensland and Western Australia.

“The aspects of regional work they enjoyed included  for broader work scope and job progression,” Rose said. “They also liked the more personal connection with patients that often comes from working in smaller communities, and the community connection.”

Transitioning from academia to a bustling healthcare environment presents challenges for all health professionals, but the study reveals that these pressures are amplified for regional nurses.

“Early career nurses in rural areas often have additional stresses, including those inherent in moving house and leaving family and friends behind to establish a new social network,” Rose elaborated. “There is also a smaller workforce to share the load, which can translate to less time spent on orientation and training, and longer work hours.”

Study participants proposed various workplace supports to ease this transition, including assistance in finding accommodation and transportation, along with more opportunities for social interactions.

On the job, they emphasised extended orientation activities, increased interaction with clinical facilitators and mentors, and enhanced opportunities for clinical education. Furthermore, flexibility in work hours and scheduling, as well as involvement in clinical specialty rotations, were highlighted as essential factors.

Dr Gemma Skaczkowski noted that many hospitals are strained and might have limited capacity to initiate new staff support programs and interventions.

“However, improving the experiences of early career nurses is vital to keep them in rural areas, and prevent further workforce shortages,” Dr Skaczkowski emphasised. “Pleasingly, many of the strategies suggested by nurses in our study could be actioned at a local level, with little time or financial investment.”

Further research to identify the most practical and impactful strategies in practice is recommended.

The study engaged 13 early career registered nurses working in outer regional, remote, or very remote Australian hospitals, who had graduated from a Bachelor of Nursing program between 2018 and 2020. The participants were predominantly female, with 11 located in South Australia.

Related: Rural placements bridge health worker gap in remote Australia

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