“Caring is at the heart of what we do”

Professor Lisa McKenna talks about the education of nurses and midwives at La Trobe University

By Dr Giselle Roberts

Spend an hour with Professor Lisa McKenna and you will walk away thinking you should be doing more of what you love. Head of the School of Nursing and Midwifery, McKenna sits at the interface of academic life and senior leadership. She is eminent, practical and passionate; a woman who has dedicated her career to the quality education of nurses and midwives in Australia.

The proof is in the pudding: under McKenna’s leadership, the School of Nursing and Midwifery have increased their position in the top 100 Shanghai Global Ranking of Academic Subjects, with student satisfaction at an all-time high. McKenna knows what is needed to create an exceptional tertiary experience, along with cohorts of outstanding graduates.

I sat down with Professor McKenna for a fascinating conversation on leading by example.

GISELLE ROBERTS: Lisa, it is a pleasure to interview you. Tell me about your life. Did you grow up wanting to become a nurse and midwife?

LISA McKENNA: No. I grew up in Cranbourne, which was a country town back then, and was the first in my family to complete high school. I wanted to study medicine, but my parents had reservations. “No one in our family goes to university,” my mum said, “so how about you become a nurse instead?” And that’s what I did. I got a placement at Traralgon Hospital, wanting to become a doctor, but accepting that this was the closest I could get. I enjoyed the work and decided that I could make a career out of nursing. I moved back to Melbourne, finished my training and got a job at Epworth Hospital, where I also became a midwife.

GR: How did you make the leap into education?

LM: I loved teaching students when they came into the ward. I was working at Monash Medical Centre, and a visiting academic from the Chisholm Institute (now Monash University) observed me and asked if I had ever thought about teaching. She convinced me to join the Institute and that opened the gates to further education. At that stage, I had two hospital certificates but no degree. Monash offered a Bachelor of Education with evening classes. I was very interested in educational theory, so I enrolled in it and loved it. After that I completed a Graduate Diploma in Health Administration and Information Systems, followed by a Master of Education and a PhD in Nursing. I ended up on the Monash faculty as a clinical coordinator, then a lecturer, senior lecturer and professor.

GR: Then, in 2016, you joined La Trobe.

LM: I had been at Monash since 1989, so moving to La Trobe was a leap of faith. It felt like leaving home. But I needed to take that leap, I needed to try. And I am so glad I did. I’ve always admired La Trobe’s School of Nursing and Midwifery. It is the oldest tertiary nursing school in Australia, established by the Royal College of Nursing Australia. It later became the Lincoln Institute in Abbotsford, and was then part of a merger which saw Lincoln join La Trobe University.

GR: And under your leadership, the Bachelor of Nursing has become one of the most prestigious degrees at the University. What is special about the course?

LM: Our first year students are based at La Trobe but, after that, they are placed at one of our clinical schools. They develop an affinity with their nominated organisation and are fully embedded in the healthcare model. Our students have the best of both worlds. They have the support of academic staff and a university structure, along with sustained experience in the hospital ward.

GR: What makes a good nurse or midwife?

LM: A student can master all the technical aspects, but caring about people and having empathy is central to becoming a good nurse or midwife. Nurses don’t fragment themselves into particular aspects of care. They look at the person holistically and identify what they need, both physically and psychologically.

GR: The profession is also changing at a fast pace with the emergence of digital healthcare.

LM: Yes. One of our real challenges is keeping abreast of technology and how it has changed the interface between the patient and healthcare professional. A lot has changed. We don’t use old-fashioned thermometers any more, we have digital ones. We have electronic IV machines. The paper based records that used to sit at the end of a patient’s bed are now tablets that feed into a mainframe. It is exciting but, as nurses and midwives, we need to see beyond the technology, to see the person attached to the machine.

GR: It is about helping students to find that balance.

LM: I’ve had students who panicked at a flat line on a cardiac monitor – because a lead fell off – even though the patient was relaxed and sitting up in bed. We can’t always depend on machines, but we can depend on our skills.

GR: It must be incredibly rewarding to teach the next generation of health professionals.

LM: I get really excited about helping to influence the nurses of the future, the nurses that might be caring for me and my family one day. And there are so many opportunities in nursing and midwifery. In the postgraduate space there are 14 different specialities in nursing alone; everything from critical care to cardiac. Students can obtain their basic qualification and then specialise in something that really resonates with them.

GR: And, it must be incredibly rewarding to be at the helm of a school that offers all this, and is doing it so well.

LM: It has been fantastic and I have loved my work here.

GR: It shows!

LM: That is the only way to thrive – you’ve got to be doing what you enjoy. I have taken the opportunities I’ve been given and I haven’t shied away from anything. Our staff are getting real satisfaction from data that shows students are very happy with what we do. It’s bolstered our enthusiasm. It’s about making sure that we’re preparing the best nurses and midwives for the future.

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