St John working harder with fewer staff

NEIL RATLEY
Last updated 05:00 08/03/2014

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Callouts for St John ambulance officers are on the rise as staff numbers drop.

Last year, St John Southland Lakes District - which includes the Southland, Central Otago and Queenstown Lakes districts - responded to 13,586 incidents, an increase of 539 callouts in 2008.

But as the number of calls for help rises, the number of staff working to save lives has dropped.

Figures provided by St John show in 2013 there were 271 fulltime and volunteer staff in the Southland Lakes District, compared to 284 in 2008.

The issue of staff versus patient demand has been highlighted in a detailed analysis.

In response, St John last week approved $4 million funding for 57 additional paid ambulance staff throughout the country.

Alexandra is one of four South Island locations to gain extra staff, with Christchurch receiving 10 staff, Temuka two and Picton one.

The funding for the additional staff will come from fundraising and commercial activities.

In addition St John is investing $500,000 in a volunteer sustainability strategy to help meet the challenges of recruiting and retaining valuable and essential volunteers.

St John Southland Lakes District operations manager Pauline Buchanan said the biggest factor in the decline of staff numbers was a drop in volunteers.

"This is symptomatic of the changing rural demographics and volunteer availability," she said.

"People have many demands on their time and availability nowadays. Many other community organisations with volunteers face similar challenges."

Paid staff had increased by 4 per cent between 2008 and 2013.

The reason for the increase in the number of callouts for St John was twofold, Ms Buchanan said.

"People are more aware of the need to call an ambulance when an emergency arises but others perceive calling an ambulance as a way of getting into the hospital setting without going through a GP," she said.

"St John is spending a lot of time looking at alternative care pathways and new ways of working with patients. This is to help reduce non-emergency presentations at A&E.

"In many cases, these pathways do not include transportation to hospital."

A clinical telephone advice desk was being piloted in Christchurch for low acuity (non-urgent) response vehicles work.

The decrease in volunteers posed real challenges.

"We do need the support of the community to help us run many of our services - not only ambulance services but also our community care programmes, such as St John Youth, Caring Caller and Hospital Friends," Ms Buchanan said.

St John had a co-response agreement with the New Zealand Fire Service for time critical patients. "Through this, care will arrive at a patient in a timely manner, thereby minimising any risk to lives."

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Four brigades in Southland Lakes - Edendale, Ohai, Dipton and Omakau - had an additional Memorandum of Understanding with St John to act as first response units to additional jobs as required by St John.

Nationally, since 2008 the number of incidents attended by St John had risen from 346,102 to 388,446 in 2013.

neil.ratley@stl.co.nz

- The Southland Times

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