Nine in 10 healthcare workers feel understaffed and under-resourced
Understaffing and fears of burnout among health workers could be jeopardising patient safety, and reducing access to care, unions have warned.
A survey of almost 6000 paramedics, nurses, mental health workers and support staff has found 90 per cent felt the healthcare system was understaffed and under-resourced.
The same proportion said funding was affecting access to healthcare, and 72 per cent said their workload and work pressures were not reasonable.
There are fears carers will resort to care-rationing to keep up with demand, resulting in the treatment of seemingly minor cases being delayed to the point where the patient's condition deteriorates.
That is what happened to 56-year-old Chris, who first approached his GP in March 2015 after experiencing strange bowel movements. When blood tests failed to provide a diagnosis, he was referred for a colonoscopy.
It took 10 months for his "low-priority case" to receive the procedure. That was when a cancerous tumour was found.
"Once it was diagnosed, things did move very quickly," Chris said – but it was too late. He is now undergoing palliative chemotherapy to maximise the time he has left, and believes an earlier diagnosis would have made the difference between life and death.
Emergency room nurse Nico Woodward said he had seen the effect of delayed care many times. Recently he witnessed a 17-year-old woman with appendicitis wait more than three hours for pain relief.
"Appendicitis can cause unbearable pain and sceptic rupture. Her family was frustrated, angry and concerned," Woodward said.
"My emergency department had 15 beds but was only funded for 10 beds and two nurses. We were constantly full but without extra nurses, meaning we were stretched, and patients were delayed for even simple things like pain relief."
The survey of health staff included respondents from First Union paramedics, the New Zealand Nurses' Organisation, healthcare and hospital support staff from the E Tu union, and the Public Service Association (PSA), representing mental health workers.
A PSA spokesman said the unions involved were considering making the survey annual, following the dramatic results.
Doctors and GPs were not included in the survey, but Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners president Tim Malloy said he "completely and absolutely 100 per cent" agreed with the findings.
"The reality is that, despite the absolute increase in expenditure on healthcare that is often alluded to by the minister, demand and need has gone up incrementally as the population has increased and the demographic has aged."
Paul Watson, acting director of Health Workforce NZ, said the growth in nursing and the wider medical workforce was keeping pace with population growth and was projected to continue to do so.
"Funding for health services continues to increase, with an extra $568 million going into health for 2016-17, taking the total health spend to a record $16.1 billion," he said.
However, Andy Colwell, who has worked in community mental health for 17 years, said the issues were "chronic".
"It's not about vacancies, it's about the level of work and the complexity of the work and the strain it has on us, and effect it has on our clients.
"We just don't have the staff to handle the workload."
He said acute mental health units were often full, and staff were forced to decide who was discharged based on who was least unwell, rather than on any clinical diagnosis.