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We're not a million miles away from Australia's health challenges

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Australia is a long way away in terms of miles but not that far away in terms of sharing many of the same public health challenges we face in England, particularly with respect to children and young people, and in the dedication of its nurses and midwives to ensuring children get the best start in life.

I was privileged to be invited to present at the Maternal, Child and Family Nurses Australia (MCaFNA) conference this June, in the beautiful city of Melbourne, which was celebrating 100 years of maternal and child health nursing in Victoria and Tasmania.

An Aboriginal Elder ‘strong woman’ performed a ‘Welcome to Country’ spiritual opening ceremony, reinforcing the traditional message that the land, the water and the children must be valued, respected and not harmed.

Over 850 attendees from across Australia took part over the three day conference, which had the ‘journey’ as its theme, and I was able to meet and learn from a number of wonderful practitioners and service providers.

“The evidence is clear that investing in maternity and the early years enables the best chance of a healthy and happy life.”

Many topics covered by presenters and workshops will be familiar to nurses and midwives in England, breastfeeding, mental health, parenting, embracing digital technology and reducing health inequalities: others less so, such as the challenge of providing services across rural areas in such a vast country.

I spoke on ‘getting it right in the early years’ and gave a workshop on the ‘Start of the Healthy Life Journey’.

Nurses are central to the ‘public health journey’ and we considered this journey over time, over the world and as individual life-course journeys starting with getting the best start for all our children.

The evidence is clear that investing in maternity and the early years enables the best chance of a healthy and happy life; where every person will have an opportunity to fulfil their potential, and where we will see population health outcomes improve and health inequalities reduce.

“We need to be confident in our skills in building relationships and partnerships, and seize new leadership opportunities for change.”

The Conference brought to life our shared purpose in the mission of ‘Best Start’ and enabled us to consider the maternity and childhood journey as one underpinned by the values of respect and relationships.

These values were powerfully articulated in words like ‘the baby as a precious gift’ and ‘respecting our environment so that it is one which welcomes our children,’ and demonstrated through behaviours like care, continuity and collaboration.

During the conference I heard some excellent examples of the journey: from care and service models where a risk paradigm is prominent, to one based on assets and, from ‘telling and doing unto,’ towards conversation and coproduction.

We saw how this has moved us from describing communities as ‘hard to engage,’ to approaches where, with communities, we co-design accessible relevant services and how this moves us from topic/illness based services to developing holistic care and building healthy places.

“The passion of the MCaFNA nurses and midwives to give all children and families the best start on their life journey is something I see across England.”

In order for nurses’ and midwives’ ‘vital potential’ to be fully realised we need to move from a situation where the prevention and the population health role of all nurses and midwives is ‘invisible’ to ensuring it is embedded in all practice and to make this highly visible.

We need to be confident in our skills in building relationships and partnerships, and seize new leadership opportunities for change that benefits our children families and communities.

We heard that much has been achieved but there is much to do and how we need to move from incrementalism to radical transformation leveraging new technologies.

The passion of the MCaFNA nurses and midwives to give all children and families the best start on their life journey is something I see across England when I visit services and meet people at events, and it is this passion that will be a vital component of this transformation.

I had a wonderful time at the conference, at their 1920s ball dressed as a flapper, and in Australia generally and brought back some beautiful memories of the people, the country and of a journey that we are taking together.

Viv Bennett is Chief Nurse at Public Health England

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