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Meet your Branch Councillors: Damien Hurrell – improving the system through politics, unionism and data

Meet your Branch Councillors: Damien Hurrell – improving the system through politics, unionism and data

Damien Hurrell at the 2023 delegates conference. Photo: Christopher Hopkins

He’s a well-known face at annual delegates conferences and member meetings, as he regularly heads to the microphone to speak to a motion, ask or answer a question, or offer an amendment or point of clarification. Longtime Job Rep Damien Hurrell likes to get into the nitty gritty of things – for the betterment of all Victoria’s nurses and midwives.

Damien is both a big-picture thinker, and detail-focused. He was a ‘science kid’ at school and got accepted to study science at university, but when his mum got sick he dropped out and got a job. With that early real-world life experience, his career aims changed.

‘I wanted to do something that felt more immediately meaningful in the everyday work that I would be doing,’ he explains. ‘Science is wonderful, but it can be very abstract and seem a long way away from making a difference. But in caring professions such as nursing you can see the benefit every day of what you do, in a very immediate way. That was attractive to me, so I enrolled in a nursing degree as a mature aged student. And 25 years later here we are.’

Here is Bendigo Health, where Damien has spent many years in intensive care, and was the organ and tissue donor nurse for about five years. Recently, he moved into ‘the informatics space’.

Informatics, he explains, is ‘the study and practice of dealing with information – for instance, the generation, collection, storage and disposal of data’.

More specifically, Damien works with the electronic patient record team, where his role is kind of like being a go-between for the clinicians and the product developers with the aim of ensuring that:

  1. the clinicians are aware of all of the functionalities of the product
  2. the developers understand what’s actually required by clinicians.

He also ‘looks at things like the use of AI and other tech that we can use to improve people’s health outcomes.’

It’s a niche area and was certainly never a career goal for Damien, but when his NUM approached him looking for someone to test the new system for intensive care, he discovered a new passion. It appeals to his love of science and his predisposition towards system-based thinking – digging into the details, seeing patterns or trends in the big picture, and ultimately aiming to improve the system for clinicians and patients alike.

On top of that, ‘it’s a new and evolving space so it’s really interesting to be part of it.’

System safety

That it dovetails neatly with Damien’s passion for improving systems is a bonus. This particular passion is also part of the appeal of unionism for Damien. ‘When a colleague has an issue, nearly always there is a significant if not overwhelming contribution to what’s been going on because of the systems that we work in,’ he explains. ‘So it’s a passion of mine to improve the systems so that we can make things better – for the people we care for and for the people who are providing the care.’

Damien has been a Job Rep for at least 20 years, and more recently he was elected to Branch Council. He took this step, he says, ‘to be able to make a contribution to the development and improvement of the bigger systems within which we all work’.

A key focus for him as a Councillor is on Branch work around psychological injury and psychological safety in our workplaces.

‘Everybody who’s been in nursing for any length of time has a story, either of their own or someone close to them who has been damaged. I have such regard for the work that people do, and the care that they show, that it really saddens me when we learn about colleagues – good and caring nurses – who leave nursing, who are no longer able to care for others because their own psychological health has been impacted.’

‘My utopian goal would be that no nurse or midwife ever has to leave the profession because of psychological injury that they’ve acquired at the workplace. It’s a very big aim, but I think we should shoot for the stars.’

Being on Branch Council means that Damien gets to see de-identified occupational violence reports from across the state – an essential step in not just identifying systemic pain points but also systemic success stories.

We have already used this approach to produce the 10-point plan to end violence and aggression; a guide for health service – the implementation of which has been an EBA obligation for public sector health service since 2016. But the work is not done.

‘My utopian goal,’ Damien says, ‘would be that no nurse or midwife ever has to leave the profession because of psychological injury that they’ve acquired at the workplace. It’s a very big aim, but I think we should shoot for the stars: in the same way that we, many years ago, aimed that no nurse or midwife would leave the profession because of manual handling injuries, I’d love to be able to say at some point that we’ve made similar advances in the field of psychological injury.’

These are systemic problems with systemic solutions, and technology – specifically through using it to see patterns in data – could help us find answers no one has yet even dreamed of.

‘It sounds a little bit scary, but it has such power and potential to actually help us identify root causes and commonalities, and therefore target our interventions in so many different ways,’ Damien says.

The room where it happens

Damien’s desire to change systems for the better goes all the way to the top, and during the 2022 state election he ‘took a very small step in the direction of having more nurses involved in representational politics’ when he was preselected as the Labor candidate in the Nationals-held seat of Murray Plains.

In the safest Coalition seat in Victoria, Damien ‘got absolutely hammered’ – he won 26% per cent of the vote compared with incumbent Peter Walsh’s 73.4% – but that was expected: the point was not really to win, but to make sure that everyone could vote for someone that represented their interests and values. In the end, Damien is pleased that enough people supported him that he ‘took a swing off the incumbent in an election where the Nationals otherwise did very well’.

And he would like to see more nurses and midwives getting politically active. ‘I am absolutely thrilled that we have Ged Kearney – former ANMF (Vic Branch) president – now in Parliament in the assistant health and aged care portfolio. Helen Haines is also a nurse and she’s been a powerful voice, but I would love to see more nurses in parliament, around the tables where these decisions are made that affect us and the people we care for. We’re such a large part of the community, we are trusted, we are known, and we will be supported if we get out there and tell our stories. We need many more voices like that,’ he adds.

‘I have such faith in nurses and midwives that we always have the interests of those we are working with at heart, and I think those skills translate really well to representational politics so I’d love to see more nurses sticking their hand up, getting their name out there and contributing to the discourse.’