Nurses share their ‘interest’ with peers

Kim Watson is a staff nurse in the emergency department at Hotel-Dieu Grace Hospital in Windsor. She has always had a passion for complementary therapies (CT). As a child, she recalls receiving the healing touch from her grandmother. As an adult, she would turn to CT to recover from a horrible car accident that threatened her career. But being a believer in non-traditional health therapies was sometimes an isolating and challenging experience, says Watson. That is, until 2004, when she joined the Complementary Therapies Nurses’ Interest Group (CTNIG), one of 31 interest groups affiliated with the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario (RNAO). Each group represents a unique specialty or population within nursing, and offers RNs an incredible range of professional and personal resources and support, as well as career development opportunities.

Watson says part of the reason she joined RNAO was to come together with like-minded nurses by joining CTNIG. “Most of my career, people saw me as weird. They would call me the ‘witch nurse,’” she says, adding that she never took it personally. “The CTNIG connected me with hundreds of other nurses who recognize how important it is to incorporate and integrate CT into nursing and health care in Ontario.”

Today, Watson is president of the group. It’s just the latest leadership role she’s taken on to advance her career and to advocate for the specialty in a way that makes a difference. With 757 members, Watson has some lofty goals over the next few years. “Part of my vision is to fire (members) up and get them promoting the practice of CT as part of a holistic approach to nursing practice,” she explains.

Of course not all members have leadership aspirations. Some simply want to meet peers across a wide array of sectors, tap into exciting new ideas around care, access professional development and research funding, and participate in activities that lead to real policy change.

When Thunder Bay RN Ken Allan decided to become a member of RNAO’s Nursing Leadership Network (NLN), he did so in order to interact with 1,858 peers, many outside his focus area of public health. Allan is director of health protection with the Thunder Bay Health District and is the interest group’s new president. “Many leadership roles in nursing can feel isolating. Not only did the interest group connect me with other nursing leaders, but it gave me insight into new ways of doing things,” he says, adding that discussing and discovering shared nursing leadership strategies heighten his on-the-job confidence. That networking has given him a real sense of community within the profession.

That sense of community is also important for novice RNs, Nursing Research Interest Group (NRIG) President Nancy Purdy says. Students find it a great advantage to meet with other research leaders at group events to hear real-life stories about what it is like to lead research. The time commitment, the struggle to get funding, grappling with surprising research outcomes — all of these and many more challenges can be overwhelming to those who are new to the field. “Sometimes just having a mentor to listen to their trials and tribulations is helpful,” says Purdy, a professor of nursing at Ryerson University.

Several groups offer member-exclusive bursaries and scholarships to help nurses gain much needed professional development. The 943 members of NRIG are free to apply for $1,000 to $2,000 in research grants, and up to $8,000 in scholarships, annually (it varies each year). Purdy says these offerings are incredibly helpful to nurses new to the field. “Just being able to indicate that you received even a little funding on your CV is helpful when you apply for subsequent funding. You are more likely to get more because they see someone else has invested in you. I speak from experience,” adds Purdy. “I was given an NRIG award and it helped me get additional funding for my doctoral research.” Other professional development opportunities offered by the interest group include online workshops such as “writing for publication” and “preparing grants.”

Professional development comes in many forms: financial support; seminars; news updates; and advocacy work. Sometimes, requests to weigh in on proposed government health-care policy will come from RNAO home office. Katie Dilworth, president of the Community Health Nurses’ Initiatives Group (CHNIG), points out how special this kind of involvement is for nurses. “We are able to comment from a nursing perspective, and end up contributing to making valuable changes that better our profession,” she says, noting her group’s influence on a recent government policy related to obesity screening for children. Allan concurs. An NLN colleague is currently weighing in on discussions related to the new chief nursing executive/chief nursing officer governance and leadership initiative underway as part of the passage of the Excellent Care for All Act. “Members of NLN can count on having peers in their specialty speaking on their behalf at stakeholder consultations.”

The type of commitment and advocacy work required of interest group members varies by group. In addition to policy and political action committees, each group has opportunities in communications, membership, research and education, and professional nursing practice committees. “I have a much better understanding of what occurs in our health system,” Dilworth says of her involvement over the years, “…and how easy it is for politically inappropriate decisions to be made.”

You just never know where interest group membership may lead, says Ruth Scofield, assistant professor at McMaster University School of Nursing and the interest group representative on RNAO’s board of directors. She points out how many interest groups enjoy strong affiliations at the national level. Her involvement in CHNIG as a former president led to her current role as president of the Community Health Nurses of Canada, for example. “As much as I’ve always been a life-long learner, and have had a desire for professional development all of my career, the opportunities have just opened up tremendously…by being a part of an RNAO interest group.”