Seeing first-hand the realities of nursing on the floor in a morning, afternoon and night shift is high on the to-do list for new director of nursing Chris Kerr.
After nearly 25 years working in primary health – a journey that has taken her from practice nurse to chief operating officer of one of the country’s four biggest primary health organisations – Kerr knows she has some catching up to do on secondary care nursing.
She is also aware that a DHB appointing a director with such a strong primary health background may be “quite unique”, but suspects she was successful because as a leader she is “very pragmatic, systems-oriented and clinically sound”.
With integrated services high on the health policy agenda, her background in primary health can be seen as a strength for a nursing leadership role covering nurses across the health sector – and not just in secondary care.
And she says what she doesn’t know about hospital systems and hospital nursing she is ready to learn.
Kerr’s career to date certainly shows a willingness to learn. In 2000 the practice nurse leader was tapped on the shoulder to join Hora Te Pai Health Services, a new iwi provider on the Kapiti Coast.
She started out as the nurse and manager of two community workers, an admin person and a voluntary, part-time GP.
By the time she left nearly a decade later, the staff numbers had swelled to 17.
Her latest role has been chief operating officer for Compass Health, the primary health organisation serving the greater Wellington and Wairarapa regions. Compass Health provides not only general practice services but also a range of wider, mostly nurse-led, community health services, including school-based services, outreach nursing and mental health, which Kerr managed along with integrated care development.
Kerr trained at Wellington Hospital between 1980 and 1983 and nursed in women’s health until 1989, rising to acting charge nurse before taking maternity leave.
She returned to nurse part-time in residential aged care nursing and then in an older people’s health ward, before beginning practice nursing in 1993. Along the way she also gained her postgraduate diploma in primary health.
By 2000, when she was asked to become Hora Te Pai’s first registered nurse and manager, she was already a practice nurse leader, having helped to set up a new practice and mentoring nurses new to primary health.
So when in 2001 the Wellington Independent Practitioners Association (WIPA) came to talk to the iwi provider about the move to primary health organisations (PHOs) and becoming part of the new Kapiti PHO, Kerr was ready to take a leadership role.
She quickly became a member of the PHO’s establishing committee, then the board, and then became its chair from 2006 to 2009, only resigning to become clinical director at Compass, which ultimately absorbed Kapiti PHO in 2010.
Kerr believes she gravitated quite naturally to leadership roles. “My passion and my drive is really to make a difference to people, so when these opportunities come up I haven’t held back,” she says. “But I will always see myself as a nurse first and foremost, no matter what I do.”
She acknowledges the main learning curve in the new role she started on 31 July is gaining a better understanding of the nursing workforce she leads and how the hospital works. “Finding out things like are there enough nurses at the right level and the right skill mix and the right training to be able to do what is required? Do they need nurse prescribers? What is the place of nurse practitioners within wards?”
She also plans to bring her primary health experience to the fore to improve the integration of care and how the DHB can empower nurses in the community to do more, including supporting primary health nurses to work at the top of their scope.
It sounds a heady time, but it’s one that Kerr is enjoying. She says her family keeps her balanced – as does a love of trail running/hillwalking (she has set herself a target of completing 21 21-kilometre races).
“It’s about just getting out in nature where you can offload, clear your mind and get rid of some of the clutter,” she laughs.