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A better way to care

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A better way to care

Sunny Street has changed the way health care is delivered to the vulnerable residents of the Sunshine Coast. Co-founder Sonia Martin explains how.

Sonia Martin has always been creative, rebellious and very ambitious. So when she walked away from a well-paid managerial role at the Sunshine Coast University Hospital in 2018 to start a new medical service from the boot of her car, she lent right into the fear and vulnerability that arose as a result of her deep desire to forge new ground in healthcare in Australia.

She and her friend Dr Nova Evans founded Sunny Street to provide equitable health-care services to people experiencing poverty and homelessness. Sunny Street now employs 35 staff, has a volunteer workforce of more than 150 and to date has provided over 30,000 conversations and consultations to vulnerable Australians. Last year, Sunny Street opened its first clinic in Maroochydore, which will offer priority care and support to vulnerable patients.

In October, Ms Martin was recognised when she won the 2021 Health Minister’s Award for Nursing Trailblazers by the Federal Minister for Health and Aged Care, Greg Hunt. For the Nambour mother of four and grandmother of two, it was a major highlight in her 30-year career.

“It was really quite fantastic,” she says. “It’s a one-of-a kind national award and I’m just really proud that a nurse on the Sunshine Coast won it. It was quite surreal when it all happened. I’m pretty sure I was holding my breath just before he announced the winner and it was really important for me and for nurses nationally, because there’s national recognition around nurse innovation and also the service. It was important for our team, patients and community.”

The award recognises nurse leaders and innovators who lead the way to transform our health and aged-care systems by affecting costs, improving quality of care and enhancing consumer satisfaction. The award acknowledges nurse-led innovations and models of care which significantly improve health outcomes for the Australian community through evidence-based processes.

Founded by Greg Hunt in 2019, the Trailblazers Award is administered by the Australian College of Nursing . The award is designed to acknowledge that nursing has the solutions to many of the problems that plague the Australian health and aged-care systems. This prestigious award is bestowed on an innovative and outstanding nurse who has demonstrated leadership to bring new thinking to a wide range of health-care challenges.

Ms Martin says she’s a “nursing geek” who loved working in the hospital system, but she knew something had to change in the way we care for vulnerable people who are homeless. She identified that people often just wanted someone to talk to as being homeless often means people are isolated and lonely.

“When I worked in the hospital as a nurse unit manager, I noticed a large number of representations to the Emergency Department from vulnerable and homeless people and it occurred to me that many of these people just needed somewhere they could go for a meal, some health care and some kindness. This adds enormous pressure on Emergency Departments, and in offering an alternative place for people experiencing poverty or homeless to go, we are helping to ease that burden with Sunny Street,” Ms Martin says.

“Dr Nova Evans and I have spent an enormous amount of time on the streets, working out of the boot of our car, just talking to people and listening to why they were there and what their biggest fears were,” she says. “I was shocked at how many people who needed medical care had not engaged with health providers for years, and who despite needing help, had become invisible.

“When I quit my job I thought, I just need to back myself. It would be the one regret of my life if I didn’t back myself, so I left and started from a car boot. I didn’t get a wage for the first 18 months, so I worked other jobs until we got funding.”

Sunny Street has really come to the fore during the pandemic, having tested more than 20,000 people for COVID-19 and vaccinated over 20,000 people. Having opened the Maroochydore centre in 2021, there are expansion plans for more Sunny Street centres around Australia over the next five to seven years.

“Nurses are best placed to step up and go, ‘how do we provide a solution to a social and community problem?’ Sunny Street continues to do that. We have a big push for trialling ideas, putting things into motion and tweaking them. Fear can’t have a role in innovation. I think at some stage, fear turned into stress for me. I used to have a lot of fear in the beginning; what if they don’t like this, what if it doesn’t work?

“After trialling so many aspects of a creative new health system for Australia, fear is more stress now. It’s more something I need to pull apart and break it right down and put it back together with the help of the team. Entrepreneurship in nursing is quite untapped. I’m just not afraid to push the status quo and the traditional way we do things. If we don’t do that, we don’t lead change. That’s why it’s really important to get out, step up and show up. It’s really hard to show up because all of your stress and your vulnerability is out there. I put myself out there every single day and show up and I’m completely fallible.”

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