Aim. This paper reports a study whose aim was to examine the congruence between community nurses’ perceptions and the realities of changes in their work.
Background. There have been increasing challenges to the delivery of community nursing services in Australia over the past decade. Acute care sector changes and the recent focus on health promotion, prevention, early identification and intervention adds pressure and creates tensions for community nurses, which are well-documented in the literature. There is, however, a lack of empirical evidence of actual changes in community nurses’ workloads and the focus of their work. Validation of nurses’ perceptions would enable them to have a stronger voice in the future development of community health care.
Methods. Four sources of data were used: community health client administrative data 1995–2000; occasions of service data 1995–2000; staffing numbers 1998–2001; and interviews with 14 community nurses in late 2001.
Results. Documentary evidence shows that there has been a large increase in the number of adult clients, and all clients are increasingly receiving a shorter, more intensive, clinically focussed service and are then discharged from care, rather than receiving a lower intensity service over a longer period of time. Staffing numbers have not increased to match this higher acuity and intensity. These changes were echoed by the nurses, who reported that expanded acute care roles were impacting on their workload and resulting in a loss of holistic primary health care focus. There has been a lack of leadership and proactive planning by community nurses in response to these changes.
Conclusion. Community health care in Australia is shifting from primary to short-term clinical care. Greater opportunities for community nurses to engage proactively in defining and promoting their role in the health care system are needed in order to ensure an appropriate balance of acute clinical and holistic primary health care in the community.