26 Apr 2023

The nurses ditching NZ for a better life in Oz

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 26 April 2023

There is a global shortage of nurses - and New Zealand and Australia are no exceptions. The Detail finds out why two Kiwi nurses decided to make the move across the ditch.

Kiwi nurse Sandra McMullan (right) with two local children in Bamaga, in north Queensland. Sabdra is wearing a hat and she has black-framed glasses. One of the children is looking at the camera, the other is looking down.

Sandra McMullan with local children in Bamaga. Photo: Supplied

It took Kiwi nurse Sandra McMullan more than 24 hours to get to her first job in Australia, and there was no one to meet her at the airport, but she cannot stop smiling.

To start her nursing stint in Bamaga - the northern-most town on Australia's mainland - she first had to call the hospital to be picked up from the little airport, and when she arrived at the office, someone handed her some sheets and pointed her to her house. Shortly after, she started her work in wound care.

This isolated town of 2000 mainly Torres Strait Islanders or Injinoo Aboriginal community members is exactly what McMullan was looking for, after spending most of her 35-year career as a primary care nurse in Ōpōtiki. 

"My big thing was I wanted the experience and I didn't ever want a Sydney or a Gold Coast. My dream was to be in the indigenous areas, to be more rural, to be a part of a smaller community," McMullan tells The Detail.

She was also fed up with New Zealand's health system and says the timing was right to start contract nursing in Australia.

Nearly 5000 New Zealand-based nurses have registered to work across the Tasman since August last year, while fewer than 200 Australian nurses have signed up to work here.

The dire shortage of nurses here is cited as one of the factors behind the long waits for treatment at hospital.

"We've got these huge waits for elective surgery, we've got really long waits in our emergency departments at the moment and we've got this thing called access block," RNZ's health correspondent Rowan Quinn explains. 

"People are stuck in hospital because they can't get surgery, then emergency department patients can't get in to a ward and the EDs get clogged up. A lot of people will tell you that one of the key reasons is the shortage of nurses."

Roughly 70,000 nurses work in the health system, says Quinn, and while Te Whatu Ora doesn't know exactly how many jobs are unfilled, it's estimated that it's short several thousand.

Like McMullan, many nurses are attracted by the prospect of more money in Australia and the ease of getting home at the end of a contract to see family.

Kiwi nurse Sandra McMullan is crouching on a floor. She is wearing a head torch. There is a small black dog at her feet,

Kiwi nurse Sandra McMullan Photo: Supplied

"I knew there was a ton of work, but it took me a year to do all the paperwork," she says.

She's now signed with an agency which arranges the temporary work in remote places, covers the travel costs and accommodation, as well as her salary.

Nikki Campbell worked in intensive care and palliative care in Australian hospitals for several years, before taking up a role at a private endometriosis clinic in Melbourne. She's bought a house there with her husband and is pregnant with their first child. 

She's not sure if she'll come back to New Zealand but it's not just the money keeping her there.

"For me the health system in Australia offers a lot. I had to undergo fertility treatment and fertility treatment is much more accessible here," she says.

Campbell gets better maternity leave and superannuation deals, and says New Zealand nurses are also attracted by better work conditions in the Australian health system.

But Quinn says many of the issues New Zealand nurses face, including burnout, are experienced in Australia and many parts of the world, due to the global nursing shortage.

"You can read Australian newspapers about emergency departments in Melbourne and Sydney, and you'll see similar issues about how they're really stretched. The NHS in the UK, same thing. It's really not just a New Zealand story."

McMullan says it takes a certain kind of person to do her work but she enjoys doing a job she loves without being "sucked in by the bureaucracy".

"You can just skip in and show that happy face and wave your magic wand and do some good and then leave."

Hear more about life as a nurse in Australia in the full podcast episode.

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