Acute Healthcare / Correctional Healthcare

Forensic Nursing becoming an established practice in Australia

By Linda Starr, Associate Professor, School of Nursing and Midwifery, Flinders University

Linda Starr

Linda Starr

At long last we can now say that Forensic Nursing is an established specialty area of practice in Australia.  What is forensic nursing?  Isn’t forensics about dead people?  These are common questions asked by not only members of the public but also health professionals.

Forensics is a term that simply means ‘related to law’, and whilst the historical roots of forensic practice were founded in determining the cause of death, there is now a recognised world of ‘living forensics’ dominating this area.  In 1986 Dr Harry McNamara described living forensics as the application of forensic medicine  to trauma cases where forensic intervention was required to investigate injuries caused either intentionally or accidentally.  Since this time the field has expanded and so too has the opportunity to work in the field with speciality areas developing in forensic pathology, forensic odontology, forensic podiatry, forensic accounting and forensic nursing.

Virginia Lynch is the founder of forensic nursing and has tirelessly worked across the globe to bring this speciality in nursing practice to the attention of politicians, law enforcement officers and members of the health workforce.  Forensic nursing has been established in the United States of America since the 1970’s achieving recognition as a specialty area of nursing by the American Nurses Association in 1995.  Lynch has defined forensic nursing practice as `the application of clinical nursing practice to trauma survivors or to those whose death is pronounced in the clinical environs, involving the identification of unrecognized, unidentified injuries and the proper processing of forensic evidence’.[1]  Today there are many roles in forensic nursing including, nurse death investigators, nurse coroners, sexual assault nurse examiners, correctional nurses, forensic psychiatric nurses and legal nurse consultants.

Forensic nursingCorrectional nursing and Forensic Psychiatric Nursing is an established area of practice in many countries including Australia, where nursing staff provide for the health care needs of those held in custody.  Perhaps the next largest form of forensic nursing is Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE).  These nurses provide a comprehensive and sensitive forensic examination for victims of sexual assault.  SANE’s are prepared to meet the immediate care needs of the sexual assault victim, including physical assessment, forensic examination, collection of evidence, STI testing, supportive counselling, preparing a legal report and where necessary testifying in court.   Although fairly new we have a number of forensic nurses who are pioneers in Australia now working as SANE’s providing this much-needed service to victims of crime.

The recognition and support for this growing field of nursing practice is evidence through the proliferation of courses being developed across the nation to prepare healthcare workers and in particular nurses to participate in the forensic field where the proper processing of forensic evidence can make all the difference to the medico-legal outcomes of trauma cases.   Furthermore, the Australian Forensic Nurses Association was formed in 2012 in recognition of the growing number of forensic nurses and the need to provide a professional forum for networking and development of the practice through setting standards, policies and guidelines.

In February, from the 19th-21st forensic nursing will be showcased through Informa’s second National Forensic Nursing conference in Sydney.   There are many highlights in the program including a very special keynote speaker – the founder of forensic nursing Ms Virginia Lynch!  Virginia will not only deliver a heartfelt keynote address, but will deliver a one day pre-conference workshop titled “A clinical role in death scene investigation’– a workshop not to be missed!  Conference delegates will also benefit from a fantastic educational program that covers a wide range of practice issues including sexual assault, correctional and forensic psychiatric nursing, and forensic nurse education.   In addition to these, there are some fascinating insights into some pertinent issues in the field, including ethical issues, court room tips, the aftermath of murder from the victims family’s perspective and much more!

As the foundation president of the Australian Forensic Nurses Association I would like to acknowledge and thank the conference organisers for providing such a dynamic program that will not only show case the diversity of forensic practice in Australia, but is bound to increase the profile of this work and those practitioners committed to improving the health care and general outcomes for victims of crime.

[1] Lynch Virginia, Clinical Forensic Nursing: A New Perspective in Trauma’. 1997 Bearhawk Consulting Group, ColoradoUSA>

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