Community nursing no walk in the park

Nurse manager Ms Josephine Koh (left) and community staff nurse Ms Ong Sock Lee.
Nurse manager Ms Josephine Koh (left) and community staff nurse Ms Ong Sock Lee.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Those in the sector say that while the pace is slower, the work is just as demanding

For years, moving out of the hospital and taking up community nursing jobs like home care was seen as a cushy "retirement job".

But those in this rapidly expanding sector - where nurses are now much sought after - say that while the pace is slower, the work is just as demanding.

They are often called upon to improvise, and find that many clients' needs go far beyond the medical.

For instance, community staff nurse Ong Sock Lee once went to a flat where she had been called to do a simple wound dressing - only to find that the floor was alive with cockroaches. On top of that, there were nearly 30 cats sprawled in cages and across the furniture, and a haze of cat fur in the air.

"I seldom come across situations like that, and I was not prepared at all," said 37-year-old Ms Ong, who has been with Touch Home Care for two years. "(The patient) was discharged just two days earlier and already everything was dirty."

It took months of slowly establishing rapport with the family, and the intervention of the authorities, before the situation improved.

Last Thursday, the Agency for Integrated Care announced that its upgraded Return to Nursing scheme - which is targeted at drawing nurses back to the community care sector - had attracted 19 sign-ups since its launch in April. To put the numbers in perspective, only 37 people signed up at the Singapore General Hospital for the older edition of the scheme between 2010 and 2015.

While the older scheme hoped to draw former nurses back to hospitals, those under the enhanced one will work in places like nursing homes and home-care organisations. Their training focuses on topics such as palliative and dementia care, and they get a sign-on bonus of up to $5,000.

Industry players such as NTUC Health, which runs a nursing home and provides home and daycare services, said it is difficult to recruit nurses. This is despite the fact that the needs are growing rapidly due to Singapore's ageing population.

"Most times, seniors prefer to be cared for in the community or in their own homes where they feel most comfortable, rather than in hospitals," said Ms Karen Bek, deputy director of home care and service partnership at NTUC Health.

Ms Karen Lee, chief executive of the Home Nursing Foundation, added that they have not had problems so far, although she has heard that smaller players are struggling to get manpower.

"People used to have the perception that this is somewhere you go when you want something lighter," said Ms Lee. "But in the community, you actually work in a lot less controlled environment."

For instance, her nurses have had to use sanitary pads or adult diapers as a stopgap measure to cover patients' wounds, until they could be taken to a hospital.

"In the hospital setting, everything is provided - for complex wound care they might prescribe very high-end products," Ms Lee added. "But if clients are not willing or able to purchase this, you have to find an alternative."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 15, 2016, with the headline 'Community nursing no walk in the park'. Print Edition | Subscribe