Waikato District Health Board has been named as one of four in New Zealand at "high risk" due to staff shortages.
The board's status was revealed after routine certification audits last year, and came to light after a question put to Health Minister Tony Ryall in Parliament by Labour health spokeswoman Annette King this month.
"In the last year, routine certification audits have assessed Waikato, Hawke's Bay, Hutt Valley, and Nelson Marlborough District Health Boards as high risk of having staff shortages in specific staffing areas," Mr Ryall said in his written response to Mrs King's query.
"As you would expect, DHBs actively manage their staffing positions, and I am advised that these staffing issues have been addressed. The Ministry of Health has downgraded their risk level to moderate."
However that explanation was not enough for Green party health spokesman Kevin Hague, who visited Waikato to discuss and investigate health issues last week, including staffing and service delivery times at Waikato Hospital.
"I'm very concerned that Waikato was identified as one of four DHBs that was red-flagged for staffing shortages," he said.
"The minister says this has now been fixed, but the chief executive of the DHB . . . has said the minister's focus on elective surgery is putting staff and the whole hospital system under pressure.
"DHBs around the country are facing staff cuts and shortages, while the minister is being tricky with the numbers of new staff, particularly nurses employed on his watch. We know that he is counting ‘extra' new nurses nationally by contract changes of people already working as nurses, and changing the way nurses were counted.
"It's not surprising that Waikato DHB is not meeting its targets for emergency department treatment times. We have new nursing graduates stacking supermarket shelves, while the minister has no plan to tackle the projected nursing shortage hitting us from 2015, and nurses are run off their feet."
Mr Ryall dismissed Mr Hague's misgivings.
"This is simply electioneering from Kevin Hague and the Greens. Waikato has an extra 350 fulltime equivalent nurses under this Government, and Waikato DHB's budget has increased by $191 million."
Meanwhile, the union representing resident doctors has revealed it also has grave concerns over the safety of hospital patients and believes mistakes are inevitable given the unreasonable workloads faced by staff.
The warning follows a coroner's inquest into the death of Trevor Bourke, who died in North Shore Hospital from a tear in his aorta in May last year, after an X-ray was missed by his doctor, Aik Haw Tan.
New Zealand Resident Doctors Association national secretary Deborah Powell said the union was working with district health boards to identify and address safety challenges.
Although some progress had been made since Mr Bourke's death, the working environment of hospitals around the country was far from ideal, she said.
"Both the workloads and the hours resident doctors continue to be asked to work is high. Mistakes are bound to happen if doctors are overworked and tired. It is inevitable that patients will suffer in such circumstances."
Dr Powell said such cases were symptomatic of a wider problem in New Zealand hospitals.
"Tragedies like this will continue to occur unless the issue of shortages and proper resourcing are addressed."
'WE'LL HANDLE IT'
Waikato District Health Board communications director Mary Anne Gill says the organisation is dealing with ongoing staff shortages in several areas including senior medical officers - particularly in rural areas - and in community mental health.
The situation was detailed in the board's draft 2014-2015 workforce plan, which would be discussed in the public-excluded section of today's board meeting.
"Waikato DHB has been undertaking activities to build our workforce capability and capacity since 2008. The issues now as then are similar," she said.
"We still have an ageing workforce - our average age is 47 and it is higher in our rural and small-town workforces. It is still not easy to attract health professionals to rural and semi-rural locations, eg: Taumarunui, Tokoroa, Te Kuiti, [and] Thames.
"If nothing changes, the demand for services will exceed the workforce's capacity."
The average age of the health board's nurses was 48.
"[It's] even older in some of our rural areas. We are planning for it. We are increasing our new grad intake as positions become available and older nurses retire."
Do you work for the Waikato District Health Board? We want to know what it's really like -- is it as stressful as Mr Hague and the Resident Doctors Association implies? Are conditions worse? Or is it a great place to work? Health reporter Mike Mather wants to hear your stories, with a guarantee of anonymity should you so require it. Please email email@example.com.
- Waikato Times