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Sharron Armstrong 2006


A qualitative framework was used to explore the nature and the quality of interactions between sole on-call primary health care rural nurses and secondary care doctors as a component of rural nursing practice and representative of the primary-secondary care interface. Crucial to patient centered care, the premise was that the quality of this interface would be variable due to multiple influences such as: the historical nurse/doctor relationship that has perpetuated medical dominance and nursing subordination; current policy direction encouraging greater inter-professional collaboration; and changing role boundaries threatening traditional professional positioning. A total of 11 nurses representing 10 separate rural areas participated in semi-structured interviews with the analysis guided by a general inductive approach to qualitative data.

Rural nurses typically interact with secondary care doctor for acute clinical presentations with two tiers of interaction identified. The first tier was presented as a default to secondary care doctors for assistance with managing primary care level clinical presentations in the absence of access to a general practitioner or an appropriate Standing Order enabling appropriate management. The second tier presented itself as situations where, in the professional judgment of the nurse, the client status indicated a need for secondary level expertise and/or referral to secondary care. The needs of the rural nurse in these interactions were identified as access to expertise in diagnosis, therapy and management, authorisation to act when intervention would exceed the nurse's scope of practice; the need to refer clients to secondary care; and the need for reassurance, encompassing emotional and professional issues.

The quality of the interactions was found to be variable but predominantly positive. Professional outcomes of positive interactions included professional acknowledgement, support and continuing professional development. For the patient, the outcomes included appropriate, timely, safe intervention and patient centered care. The infrequent but less than ideal interactions between the participants and secondary care doctors led to professional outcomes of intraprofessional discord, a sense of invisibility for the nurse, increased professional risk and professional dissatisfaction; and for the client an increased potential for deleterious outcome and suffering.

Instead of the proposition of variability arising from interprofessional discord and the current policy direction, the data suggested that variability arose from three interlinking factors; appropriate or inappropriate utilisation of secondary care doctors; familiarity among individuals with professional roles and issues of rurality; and acceptance by the primary care doctor of the sole on-call primary health care rural nurse role and the responsibility to assist with the provision of primary health care.

The recommendations for improving interactions at the interface include national, regional and individual professional actions. Establishing a generic definition and competencies for sole on-call primary health care rural nursing, with provision of appropriate resources including nationalised evidence based Standing Orders, referral guidelines and formalised relationships with secondary care facilities would greatly assist with appropriate and professional use of the primary-secondary care interface.

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