CONNECTING THE UNCONNECTED: CQUniversity research student Dr Pammie Ellem.
CONNECTING THE UNCONNECTED: CQUniversity research student Dr Pammie Ellem. Contributed

Isolated Specialist Breast Care Nurses to feel less alone

A DEDICATED CQUniversity research student has studied hard to support some of Queensland's most isolated Specialist Breast Care Nurses (SBCNs).

Dr Pammie Ellem grew up on a cattle property near Chinchilla before beginning her own nursing career, which led to 15 years as a specialist breast care nurse in rural and regional areas of Queensland.

Dr Ellem said her rural background, combined with her passion for nursing, has given her empathy and understanding of the conditions faced by isolated SBCNs.

Professional peer support for SBCNs working in regional, rural and remote areas of Australia had not previously been available.

That's according to Dr Ellem, who recently graduated with her PhD based on a study to support nine SBCNs working across both Central-West and South-West


The outcome of this study had been a collaborative development of a model of professional peer support, appropriately titled "Connecting the unconnected”, by and for the SBCNs of Central-West and South-West Queensland.

The co-researcher SBCNs of this study were previously unconnected and professional isolated.

"These nurses who are based across an area of 420,000 square kilometres, are dealing with aggrieved, anxious and upset patients, yet they lacked a way of connecting for professional peer support,” Dr Ellem said.

"We started out trying face-to-face meetings but settled on a telehealth model of monthly videoconferencing with face-to-face on a quarterly basis.”

The monthly meetings can be attended face-to-face or via videoconference, which provides options for all.

"Using participatory action research, we have structured a meeting process where everyone has equal footing,” Dr Ellem said.

"There are elements of case conferencing and de-briefing, a guest speaker or journal reviews and feedback on conferences.

"Each participant brings their own strength, whether it be isolated service, wound care or palliative care.”

Dr Ellem, who is currently based at Bundaberg's CQUniversity campus, said the study was developed after many conversations with peers, fellow SBCNs who commented other general nurses did not understand the complexities of their role, and the growing need for support from those who hold the same role.

"After some investigation I discovered the scarcity of literature that addressed support for SBCNs, although there was an abundance of papers that valued the role for patients experiencing breast cancer,” she said.

"There were a few papers that suggested this work should be investigated, but no follow on.

"It was a perfect opportunity to work with SBCNs to develop a model of professional peer support.”

Dr Ellem said the participating SBCNs have gone from being shy and retiring to forging strong bonds and possessing greater confidence.

"They are now good friends who trust and help each other professionally, which in turn helps the patients experiencing breast cancer and their families,” she said.

"The study has also created enormous stability in the workforce as we've only had one change of personnel across the past four years.

"These nurses are now keen to become researchers to improve their roles. We do need researchers at the bedside so it's so fantastic that they have realised the worth of this study.”

The SBCNs have continued to meet within the model "Connecting the unconnected” for more than 12 months since implementation, which proves how sustainable the model is.

Dr Ellem's PhD study was funded by the Breast and Prostate Cancer Association of Queensland, which has provided an additional $80,000 funding so she can roll it out across the state.

She said she now has the opportunity, with support from The Breast and Prostate Cancer association of Queensland and CQUniversity, to roll the model out across Queensland starting with a Specialist Breast Care Nurses meeting in Mackay later this year

"We will also be visiting Longreach and Emerald,” she said.

"The meetings provide the SBCNs the opportunity to debrief, case conference and review journal articles or listen to guest speakers with their own peers who really understand the complexities of the care required.

"The success of the model relies on consistent attendance with small numbers to build rapport and trust. Once rapport and trust are developed, the SBCNs can share knowledge in a safe environment to improve practise and patient care.

"The model of support enables the SBCNs to improve their practice through peer support, education and networking. Hence the empowered SBCNs are then able to improve patient care, which is the ultimate outcome.”

Dr Ellem will be carrying out this study alongside her CQUniversity staff role, teaching postgraduate students how to become good clinical facilitators.

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