Nursing in the Highlands and Islands: An interview with Professor Annetta Smith

To mark International Nurses Day, we caught up with Professor Annetta Smith, Head of the Department of Nursing and Midwifery, to ask her about careers in nursing, working in the Highlands and Islands and the impact of COVID-19.

Can you describe your career and how it led to your current position?

Most of my career as a nurse has been spent in education. When I was working as a nurse in clinical practice, I always had a particular interest in teaching nursing students. My first teaching post was in the Highlands and Western Isles College of Nursing and Midwifery, I spent almost 19 years working with the University of Stirling where I held various senior positions before joining the University of the Highlands and Islands as Head of Department in 2017. Alongside nurse education I have developed a number of research interests over the course of my career and completed my PhD in 2008. It has been a privilege to able to combine my two interests of nurse education and health research during my career and I was delighted to be awarded the title Professor of Nursing in 2018.

Our university partnership took over delivery of pre-registration nurse education in the region in 2017. How has the department developed since then?

There have been so many significant developments that have happened since we became an academic department in the university in 2017. We have grown quickly and diversified our activity. Our undergraduate student nurse numbers have increased significantly, we offer a successful MSc programme in advanced nursing practice / advanced professional practice and our shortened post-registration midwifery programme has helped to ensure midwives have been prepared to work in our Highland and Island communities. The number of PhD students supervised by our department continues to grow and our researchers are making an important contribution to new emerging health evidence through research grant activity, academic publications and knowledge exchange. 

What have been the highlights over the last five years for you?

It has been an incredibly exciting five years, supporting both the transition of nurse education into the university and the rapid growth of all the department teaching and research activity. The highlights are always our students. Although we could not have a physical graduation last year because of the pandemic, our first nursing, midwifery and advanced practice students graduated from the university and are now working across the Highlands and Islands, throughout the UK and beyond. From a more personal perspective, I have had the opportunity to work with colleagues both in the UK and globally across education, research and policy activities and have enjoyed the opportunities these collaborations have offered and it has been a privilege to make that wider contribution to the nursing profession.

Why is nursing a good career option?

Nursing is a varied, complex and multi-skilled profession and nurses work in many diverse settings and the career opportunities are almost endless. Nurses can be found in every health care setting, they are at the front line of care delivery, often leading and delivering specialist services. Nurses make an important contribution to service delivery in social care and third sector agencies, can work in the private sector and prison services. Nurses are healthcare management leaders, academics and researchers. There are too many career options to identify them all, but there are multiple career possibilities to suit anyone interested in becoming a nurse.

What is different about being a nurse in the Highlands and Islands?

In many respects it doesn’t matter where nurses work, the patients regardless of where they live are always the most important focus for what nurses do. Being a nurse in the Highlands and Islands gives us the opportunity to live and work in one of the most beautiful parts of the UK. Very often nurses live in the communities that they work in and that can also bring its own challenges and rewards, but the rewards will always outweigh the challenges. 

What is special about the University of the Highlands and Islands nursing courses?

All of our courses are developed in close partnership with our health service colleagues and that joint approach helps to ensure that our courses are highly relevant for our students and for their professional development and competence. We have two campus sites, in Inverness and Stornoway, our campus in Stornoway in the Western Isles is unique to the UK as it provides an opportunity for nursing students to undertake their programmes in an island setting. All of our students have the opportunity to experience such a wide diversity of placements across the Highlands and Islands, that includes opportunities for unique remote and rural experiences of healthcare.

What impact has COVID-19 had on the department over the last year?

Like many similar departments to ours across the UK, the impacts have been significant. Over the past year students have mainly been taught online and, importantly, they have made a significant contribution in their clinical practice education to the COVID effort and we are very proud of that contribution. The department staff have gone above and beyond to ensure all our courses continue to run and that students are well supported. We have learnt a lot in the process and particularly how we deliver our programmes and to make the most of the technology available to us. We have really missed our more regular face to face contact with both our students and with our department colleagues and are looking forward to resuming that contact when we are able to do so. 

As well as teaching nursing and midwifery students, the department is also involved in research. Can you tell us about some of the current projects?

Health research is an important component of what we do and it is not possible to list every project, but this is a flavour of what department staff and students are currently working on, often with other external collaborators. Staff and doctoral students continue to contribute to the global effort of the COVID-19 pandemic by exploring the impact on people’s health and healthcare to inform supportive interventions. We are conducting research on physical activity in young people, end of life care and the provision of safe medication use for older people with sensory impairment. Our research activity is impact focused and aims to contribute to knowledge that will help to improve the health and illness experience of the population.  

You will be retiring this summer. What are your hopes for the future of nursing education in the Highlands and Islands?

We know that when nurses and other healthcare workers have access to their education programmes close to home they are more likely to choose to stay in the same area to work when they qualify or are more likely to return in time. This factor is so important to the provision of healthcare delivery throughout the Highlands and Islands and to the sustainability of that delivery. Given the significant growth and achievements of the department over the past five years, I am confident that education and research activity will continue to develop and innovate, and that the department will continue to be known for its excellent provision nationally and globally whilst working closely with our local partners to support healthcare education throughout the Highlands and Islands. 

To find out more about health and wellbeing courses at the University of the Highlands and Islands, visit  www.uhi.ac.uk/en/courses

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