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National talks on remote area nurse safety

National talks on remote area nurse safety - Featured Image

Improvements in the security of remote area nurses have been put off to a future meeting of Federal, State and Territory health ministers.

In a statement issued following a meeting with remote health service operators and representatives, Rural Health Minister Fiona Nash said there had been “a number of worthy, original and thoughtful ideas” which the she would carefully consider and raise with her State and Territory counterparts “over the coming weeks”.

The meeting was convened in the wake of the fatal attack on Gayle Woodford, 56, who was working as a nurse in the remote Fregon community in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) lands of north-west South Australia. A 34-year-old man, Dudley Davey, has been charged with her murder.

The murder has ignited a campaign for improved security for nurses working in remote areas, including calls for the abolition of single-nurse posts and new rules requiring health workers attending call-outs and emergencies to operate in pairs. As at 8 April, almost 130,000 people had signed a petition calling for the changes.

The sector also faces the threat of a mass walkout of staff. A survey of 800 regional nurses cited by the Adelaide Advertiser indicates 42 would quit if single nurse posts are retained.

The fatal attack on Ms Woodford is but the latest in a series of incidents and assaults on remote area nurses. A University of South Australia study of 349 such nurses, undertaken in 2008, found almost 29 per cent had experienced physical violence, and 66 per cent had felt concerned for their safety.

The study found that there had been a drop in violence against nurses since 1995, coinciding with a reduction in the number of single nurse posts.

Senator Nash paid tribute to health workers in remote areas and acknowledged that they faced “unique and difficult challenges”, but held back from endorsing any particular course of action to improve security.

Part of the problem she faces is that the ability of Federal and State governments to act to improve health worker safety is constrained because remote area health services are independently run, often by Aboriginal communities.

Senator Nash said she would respect the independence of service operators.

“Whilst the Federal Government funds many of these remote services, they are, in fact, independently run, as they should be,” she said. “I will not break Australia’s long-standing multi-partisan commitment to Indigenous self-determination by telling these health providers how to run their services.

“Remote health services do the work on the ground and they know best, so I will be asking them for their ideas on this important issue.”

Adrian Rollins