Nursing the dream with first PhD graduate from UniSC Caboolture | UniSC | University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia

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Nursing the dream with first PhD graduate from UniSC Caboolture

At 53, Jennifer Dermer never thought she’d be at the finish line of a PhD. And yet there she is, preparing to graduate as the first ever PhD awarded from UniSC’s Caboolture campus.

Her PhD thesis, ‘Promoting nurses’ performance of basic life support in non-critical care hospital wards’, stemmed from her own experiences as an intensive care nurse, clinical nurse educator and resuscitation officer.

“Nursing has taken me all over the world,” Jennifer said.

“I’ve worked in nursing in the USA, New Zealand and Australia, but for a PhD I had to allow my humility to take a hit…because just being an experienced nurse or clinician didn’t necessarily mean I was good academically.”

Jennifer, who’s been in nursing since 1996, admits she had to “work really hard” at academic writing.

“Academia doesn't come naturally to me. I remember reading sentences in research books that I literally had to look up every word they were saying.”

“But I’ve had the most supportive supervisors… I have to pinch myself sometimes because even though they are such busy people, they were always available if I needed any help or support.”

As Jennifer’s nursing career advanced, she went from being an intensive care nurse to an educator, then a clinical nurse educator in cardiothoracics, and a resuscitation officer. It was when she began working as a sessional tutor for university students that she realised her passion lay in mentoring others.

“I loved it, and decided I would like educating to be my end goal,” she said.

“I found some awesome supervisors and enrolled in the master's program at UniSC’s Caboolture campus, then articulated six months later into the PhD program.”

As an intensive care nurse, Jennifer received extensive training in advanced cardiac life support. “It’s quite comprehensive, intensive, and you get lots of education for it,” she said.

“But then I became a resuscitation officer and started hearing from non-critical care nurses that their training wasn't long enough and how they felt marginalised once the resuscitation team arrived, so I decided to look into it.”

This became the background for her research. “Ward-based hospital nurses often face challenging and complex clinical situations within their workplace,” she wrote in her thesis.

“However, even with the required yearly competencies in basic life support, and ongoing professional development opportunities, ward nurses do not always appear to have the capabilities to manage in-hospital cardiac arrests effectively.”

Nursing is considered the most trusted profession in the world, though Jennifer said this honour comes with a lot of responsibility to live up to.

“The central research question underpinning my PhD was, ‘What needs to be done to improve the confidence and performance of nurses in the provision of basic life support in non-critical care wards?’”

Jennifer’s primary aim is to help retain the nursing workforce and prevent professional burnout – stemming from an imbalance in abilities, skills, available resources and clinical demands – through better education and training.

Through a mixed method study, Jennifer interviewed ward-based nurses about what the barriers were for them in performing basic life support, what helped, and their opinions on mandatory yearly “tick-and-flick competency” education. These findings were used to develop an in-depth, hour-long targeted basic life support course to take the place of the regular 15-30 minute annual training, combining evidence-based practice guidelines and the Knowles’ principles of adult learning.

By keeping class sizes to a maximum of six participants, Jennifer created a “low stress, safe environment” where participants could debrief and talk about how they felt, with lots of time allocated to practicing chest compressions and using defibrillators.

“Nurses were encouraged to engage in conversation with each other and the instructor, relating to their anxiety and overall feelings and experiences related to basic life support,” Jennifer said.

A post-education session survey was then used to gauge the results of the training, where Jennifer said she received incredibly positive feedback. “It’s evident from this study that nurses both require and appreciate more depth and time spent developing basic life support skills,” she said.

Now nearing the completion of her thesis, Jennifer said this is just the beginning of her research journey, though perhaps the biggest finding she has taken from it is her own resilience.

“When this all started, one of my supervisors Steven James said, ‘I want you to remember one word. And that word is resilience.’ Then right as I started, I needed to get into hospitals to interview nurses, then boom – COVID-19 hit – and I had to find ways to be innovative,” she said.

“Then there was all the paperwork and stages I had to go through, so I kept reminding myself, ‘I'm going to be resilient, try not to control things you can't control. This is a hard process. And it's okay to be upset.’

“It's one of those things that no one will ever be able to take away from me. I did it. That whole imposter syndrome thing will stick with me until I die, but I can say, I really did this. With flippin’ tons of support!”
Doctor of Philosophy

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