David Bruce is one of thousands of Australians choosing to further their nursing careers with a master’s degree in nursing or in the allied health professions. With the Covid-19 pandemic accelerating the need for health services and disrupting the economy, many have decided to boost their qualifications or retrain to find a more secure career path.
Studying full-time for his master’s degree at Monash University and continuing to work as an emergency nurse with Alfred Health in Melbourne, Bruce, 28, takes care of trauma cases and accident victims who often need immediate treatment to keep them alive. “Critically unwell patients present to the emergency department very, very unwell and they need life-saving interventions,” he said.
According to Australian Bureau of Statistics census data, about 260,000 midwives and nursing professionals were employed in Australia in 2016, and about 12,000 of them had a master’s degree in the field.
In 2019, according to the federal department of education, skills and employment, there were nearly 47,000 masters students studying in the field of health, an increase of 39 per cent since 2015.
Students like Bruce, working towards a master’s degree in nursing or an allied health program, are usually either nurses building on their existing nursing degree or professionals with degrees in other disciplines who want to pursue a career in healthcare.
Bruce decided to work towards a post-graduate degree in emergency care for a range of reasons. “It allows you to do more; it teaches more about anatomy and patho-physiology, disease progress; it gives you an in-depth and well-rounded knowledge of everything that can present in an emergency department,” he says.
Master’s students can select their subjects strategically for the career path that suits them best, he adds. “You can choose to go down the nurse-practitioner role, you can choose academic research, you can go into education, leadership, disaster nursing, you can work with World Health Organisation.”
Bruce worked through the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic in Melbourne, following strict health protocols and continually wearing an N-95 mask whenever he was at work, which eventually meant he had to sick leave because he had pressure areas on his face.
“It’s put a significant strain on the hospital especially trying to work with isolation precautions,” he says. “It’s presented a lot of challenges, particularly for me, I feel I’m not engaging with patients as much.”
Chris Brebner, Dean (education) of the College of Nursing and Health Sciencesat Flinders University in South Australia, says the Covid-19 health crisis had a “massive impact” across the state. Still, because of the need for the health workforce to be ready for action, the university managed to maintain most of the practical experience elements of the nursing and allied health worker master’s degrees, even when Adelaide was in lockdown, when the theoretical component of the courses was offered online.
Now, though, students have returned to their usual classes, she says, with precautions including smaller class sizes and student spacing.
About 400 students are studying for the two-year graduate entry master’s degree in nursing at Flinders this year. “That’s been really popular; students are saying, ‘well actually, I’ve lost my job, there’s some real opportunity here in the health workforce,” Brebner says, adding that even in uncertain economic times, qualified nurses and allied health workers can always find employment, particularly in rural and remote areas.
Allied health workers, too, have a crucial part to play in modern healthcare, she says. Physiotherapy, speech pathology, occupational therapy, psychology, social work, nutrition, dietetics and many others: there’s a real need for all the specialities, to keep people healthy, to keep them at home, to help them recover from smaller ailments, she adds, and the need to maintain health in the home has been highlighted by the recent Royal Commission into aged care.
“There’s a really important role to keeping people going as best they can, for the allied health professionals,” she says.
Professor Debra Griffiths, head of nursing and midwifery at Monash University, says at any one time the university has about 500-600 students enrolled in the traditional nursing master’s degrees designed for working nurses, and about 300 in the master of nursing practice degree, which provides graduates in other disciplines with the qualifications to work in nursing.
Nurses who are passionate about a particular field of healthcare, she says, and who want to lead in that speciality, understand it’s important for them to get a post-graduate qualification in the field.
“It sets them for senior roles, wherever they’re working,” she says. “Some of these nurse managers have huge budgets, multi-million dollar budgets, so they need some extra skills to be able to work through and lead.”
Professor Julia Morphet, director of education-nursing at Monash, says the Monash master’s in nursing courses moved online during the pandemic, with some exemptions for students who need to learn practical clinical skills before they go into the health service.
“We already had quite a lot of content online,” she says. “Now workshops have moved online. We have built a bit more interactivity into some of our online resources, and a bit of virtual reality. It was always in the pipeline but it’s come in a bit sooner.”
The federal government has subsidised some of nursing master’s courses, with Commonwealth Supported Places, reducing the cost from $30,000 to $10,000, clustered in certain specialties, and this year Monash has decided to subsidise all the post-graduate nursing streams. Monash leaders understand their value, Morphet says, and often nurses can’t afford to undertake a master’s degree and it brings them little financial reward.
“In some professions, if you complete a masters’ degree, your salary will increase by ten, twenty, thirty thousand dollars a year,” Morphet says. “In nursing, a master’s degree in Victoria earns an extra $1.60 per hour.”
Professor Frank Donnelly, interim dean of nursing at the University of Adelaide, says the demand for highly-skilled health workers continues to grow and there are always new skills to master and new health practices to understand.
“Health accelerates at a phenomenal rate in terms of innovation and technology,” he says, “it’s a never-ending story.”
Adelaide has about 350 post-graduate nursing students enrolled this year, most most will leave with a graduate diploma after one year, rather than studying for two years to earn a master’s degree. These working nurses get most of their clinical reinforcement in hospitals and clinics, helping take care of patients, he says.
“If it’s a coursework masters, then probably the emphasis for us is on how they apply their understanding of research back into the clinical setting,” he adds. “If it’s a research masters, then clearly the obligation on them is to pursue a research agenda. They might do a small project in their clinical environment, they’d write that up, apply appropriate methodology to that.”