Professor Kate Curtis takes out top honour at 2019 HESTA Australian Nursing & Midwifery Awards

Top honour: Wollongong nurse and clinical researcher Professor Kate Curtis has been named the HESTA 2019 Australian Nurse of the Year for her work to improve emergency care, particularly for children. Picture: Supplied
Top honour: Wollongong nurse and clinical researcher Professor Kate Curtis has been named the HESTA 2019 Australian Nurse of the Year for her work to improve emergency care, particularly for children. Picture: Supplied

Working in Wollongong Hospital's busy emergency department has its challenges, yet it's also very rewarding says clinical nurse consultant Kate Curtis.

Professor Curtis has been named the HESTA 2019 Australian Nurse of the Year for her tireless work to improve emergency hospital care across Australia and internationally.

"I was surprised to win this award as I don't think I'm any more special than any other nurse - but it is exciting to get emergency nursing in the spotlight," she said.

"There's going to be a shortage of around 10,000 emergency and critical care nurses in 10 years time. That's because it can be unpredictable and it can be chaotic. You're exposed to the best and worst of people's lives every day.

"It can be quite frustrating too - Wollongong Hospital for instance sees similar numbers in the emergency department as big Sydney hospitals, yet has much fewer resources in terms of staffing, so it's very challenging."

That's why Prof Curtis is putting her prize money from the national awards towards emergency care education sessions throughout the Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District (ISLHD).

"I work across the four emergency departments in the district, with such great groups of nurses and other health professionals and I love it," she said. "That's why I wanted to put the prize money back into education."

Prof Curtis spends half her work life on the frontline, and the other half conducting research through the University of Sydney.

A main focus of that research has been to improve emergency care for injured children - as well as to prevent injury occurring.

"When we first started to research childhood injury there was no nationwide data," she said. "So we did a 10-year study on all childhood injury across Australia and found that rates hadn't changed in that time.

"Injury remains the leading cause of death and disability in Australian kids.

"There's 50,000 children admitted to hospital each month across the country and 140 children die every year from injury - that's a plane crash each year."

Prof Curtis and her team successfully lobbied for federal funding to develop a National Injury Prevention Strategy, which is set to be completed next year.

"The highest cause of childhood injury is falls, with most occurring in playgrounds. The second highest cause is road trauma," she said.

"We're not trying to stop kids having fun, but we want them to have the right to do that as safely as possible.

"So we're looking at things like mandatory helmet use on scooters, and making sure that the Australian standards are being enforced for all playgrounds."

Prof Curtis has also worked as part of a team to review 500 cases of severely injured children in NSW, and come up with recommendations to improve access to care.

"We found that if a child in Australia is injured in a rural or regional area, they're twice as likely to die from their injuries," she said.

"That's not necessarily related to hospital care, but the time it takes to get the definitive care they need."

The 26 recommendations, released last week, include the establishment of a statewide referral system with a single point of contact for injured children requiring transfer to a paediatric trauma facility within NSW.

Another of the recommendations is the implementation of a 'no refusal policy' for paediatric trauma centres for children meeting specified criteria requiring transfer.

Prof Curtis said the research team also recommended that guidelines be developed to ensure the use of the closest appropriate medical retrieval team for inter-hospital transfers.

"Say a child needs to be retrieved from Shoalhaven Hospital to Sydney, at the moment the only service used for that is NETS (Newborn and paediatric Emergency Transport Service)," she said.

"We're recommending that other services, like the ambulance helicopter, can do those retrievals as well - so that more resources are available to get injured kids to Sydney."

The Wollongong born and bred nurse has also conducted research in her own back yard - such as researching ways to improve the flow through Wollongong Hospital's ED.

"The first clinician a patient sees is a nurse - they might wait two to three hours to see a doctor - so we need to make sure nurses are doing a really good assessment so cases can get escalated if required," Prof Curtis said.

"We've developed a structure to do that which is now being implemented at Wollongong, and across Australia and internationally."

Prof Curtis attended Figtree High School before completing a nursing degree at the University of Wollongong. She worked in the EDs at Westmead and St George hospitals, and ran the trauma service at St George for 19 years before returning to the ISLHD two years ago.

The HESTA Australian Nursing & Midwifery Awards recognise workers who excel across the three award categories - Nurse of the Year, Midwife of the Year and Team Excellence.