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Nurse holding an IV bag in a hospital ward

Different types of nurses: from paediatrics to aged care

Picture a nursing career. Do you see medical professionals in scrubs tending to patients in a busy hospital ward? Perhaps they’re juggling bed pans, blood pressure machines and night shift-induced fatigue.

It’s true this is the reality for many nurses. But the day-to-day for different types of nurses who specialise in niche areas can be a lot more diverse. It might involve complex care for older people living with multiple comorbidities, working in alcohol and other drug settings, or putting children and their families at ease before an invasive procedure.

‘Nurses have a critical role to play in providing quality care for everyone, whether in a hospital, in residential care or in the community,’ says Dr Rebecca Thornton, a senior lecturer in nursing at Deakin’s Faculty of Health. ‘There are so many nursing specialties experiencing huge demand that people might not think of immediately.’

Here, Dr Thornton shares her insights into three popular, in-demand nursing specialties: paediatrics, mental health and aged care.

What do nurses do in paediatrics?

Paediatric nursing covers the care of children from birth to early adulthood and includes a huge range of sub-specialties. ‘There’s the neonatology department, which cares for babies from birth to 28 days of age, and we also have all of the usual specialties found in adult hospitals like general surgery, orthopaedics, neuroscience and burns trauma,’ says Dr Thornton, who specialises in paediatrics.

She says care is family-centred rather than person-centred, with a focus on treating the child in the context of their family.

It also demands particularly adept assessment skills, Dr Thornton explains. ‘Pre-verbal children can’t tell us in the same way that an adult would what hurts or what their symptoms are like or what they’re feeling, so being able to tune into really subtle clues about what might be going on for the child is really important.’

Plus, she says, being in a healthcare setting can be anxiety-provoking for children, so paediatric nurses need to be friendly and creative. ‘We spend a lot of time playing with kids, building rapport and really using a lot of creative strategies to introduce them to the different assessment approaches and the different tools and techniques that we use.’

'There are so many nursing specialties experiencing huge demand that people might not think of immediately.'

Dr Rebecca Thornton,
School of Nursing & Midwifery, Deakin University

Mental health nursing careers

What sets mental health practitioners apart from other different types of nurses is the diversity of settings in which they work. Caring for patients’ and clients’ psychological wellbeing, mental health nurses work in community health centres, hospitals, emergency care services and dedicated specialist mental health facilities such as eating disorder units.

‘There are mental health nurses working predominantly in alcohol and other drug settings, and we’ve also got people working with patients in acute mental health settings – and then you’ve got specialisations within that, like caring for new mums experiencing postnatal depression,’ Dr Thornton says.

Plus, there’s a heap of crossover with other nursing specialties like paediatric mental health, nursing in the emergency department and caring for older people experiencing mental health issues in older age. ‘There’s a really wide range of roles in mental health,’ Dr Thornton says.

Aged care nursing as a profession

Empathy and an ability to build rapport with patients and residents are essential in aged care. Nurses who specialise in this area often work in residential settings – but not always.

‘There are evaluation units that specialise in the care of older people in an acute setting, and that is a specialty in itself,’ Dr Thornton says. ‘And there’s also community aged care, where nurses support older people in their own homes to stay as independent as they can in their community.’

One of the biggest challenges of specialising in aged care is the complexity of care – for nurses working in both city and country areas. ‘It can be quite complex because lots of older people experience multiple health issues,’ Dr Thornton says. ‘While a young adult who comes in to seek acute care might have one or two clear health issues, with an older person you might be seeing a number of comorbidities happening at the same time.’

How to become a nurse

Nursing is a broad field, but the good news is the initial entry pathway is straightforward. A Bachelor of Nursing allows you to apply for registration as a registered nurse and work in most nursing specialties.

‘This is your core qualification, and then there’s the option to do further training including postgraduate diplomas and degrees,’ Dr Thornton says.

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Dr Rebecca Thornton
Dr Rebecca Thornton

Senior lecturer in nursing, School of Nursing & Midwifery, Faculty of Health, Deakin University

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