Why we need school nurses more than ever

As children get back into classrooms after two years of COVID-related disruption, there is a huge focus on their wellbeing. With a quarter of young Australians now experiencing psychological distress, support for mental as well as physical health at school is paramount.

But there is help at hand, thanks to the Wellbeing and Health In-Reach Nurse [WHIN] Coordinator program in NSW. The program embeds nurses into schools in vulnerable communities to help identify kids in need, manage their care, help their families access services, and improve health literacy in the school. That might mean managing a child’s asthma to reduce absenteeism, figuring out if behaviour problems in a student are a sign of ADHD, or connecting struggling families with food hamper services.  

With the WHIN Coordinator program now in dozens of primary and secondary schools, the NSW Ministry of Health commissioned a Rapid Evidence Summary from the Sax Institute to look at how school-based nurses improve the health, education and wellbeing of school kids.

Analysing 19 studies across Australia, the US and other countries from the past five years, the authors found that school nurses improve outcomes in access to health care, disease management, care coordination and reduced absenteeism.

All the studies found school nurses and school nursing interventions were effective for health promotion, early intervention, and timely care for at-risk students. Some also found value in expanding nursing roles with more intensive care coordination and navigation, along with greater efforts to engage families and social care providers.

The Rapid Evidence Summary identified five key ways school-based nurses improve student well-being:

  • They serve as a connection point between teachers, students, primary health care and allied services, improving the flow of referrals, appointments and follow-ups
  • They are agents for change for students and their families, promoting care integration and addressing barriers to care
  • They mobilise more targeted, appropriate and coordinated care
  • They enhance family engagement with both health and education systems, achieving longer term gains
  • They provide teachers with insights into student needs and how they impact educational outcomes.

The Summary also identified challenges for school-based nurses, such as the constant need to be responsive to the local context and the importance of clarity about the nurse’s role to enable smooth collaboration and referrals.

Read the full Rapid Evidence Summary here.

A Sax Institute Evidence Check conducts a rapid review of existing research and evidence that is tailored to a policy agency’s individual needs. Find out more here or visit the Sax Institute’s Evidence Check Library.

*Readers seeking support and information about mental health can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.