Staff shortages 'starting to bite' in some hospitals

MIKE MATHER
Last updated 10:58 28/03/2014
Craig Climo
Fairfax NZ
CRAIG CLIMO
Ian Powell
FAIRFAX NZ
IAN POWELL

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Is there enough staff working at Waikato Hospital and for the Waikato District Health Board?

It depends on who you ask.

Yes, according to health board bosses who, spurred by a lead story in the Waikato Times, briefly discussed the issue at this week's health board meeting.

However, a request for information from workers has revealed far less contentment.

The Times this week reported that four health boards - Waikato, Hawke's Bay, Hutt Valley and Nelson Marlborough - were found to be at high risk of staffing shortages in specific areas during routine certification audits last year.

Health Minister Tony Ryall told Labour health spokeswoman Annette King in a written answer that the Ministry of Health had since downgraded their risk level to moderate.

At Wednesday's Waikato board meeting, chief executive Craig Climo said he believed the situation was far less dramatic than the exchange between Mr Ryall and his Opposition counterpart implied.

"[The high-risk assessment] makes it sound like staffing shortages were pervasive. It was very localised," he said.

He had not encountered a great deal of unrest among Waikato Hospital workers regarding their numbers.

"There is some science around staffing levels. There is very little noise around staffing levels here, compared to my experience in the past."

In response to a query from board member Andrew Buckley on whether the health board was generally well-staffed, chief operating officer Jan Adams replied: "The organisation is staffed to its budgets."

However, some of those who responded to the Waikato Times request to detail their own experiences working for the organisation had a different view.

The paper received a flurry of emails and Facebook comments in response to a call for information, with more promised. While there was a mix of good and bad observations - particularly on the Times' Facebook page - many asked for anonymity out of fear of reprisal from the board.

"I lasted 18 months and by the time I left my hair was falling out and I was completely burnt out," one person said.

"Because of the bullying, workload and extreme pressure I left the health sector abruptly. I studied for six years at university for my health degrees and that's just gone to waste.

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"Being in contact with former colleagues means that I have it continually reinforced what an incredibly wise decision it was to leave the DHB. It's tough for nurses wanting to leave, as their training is quite specific - to do any good in other jobs they need to retrain, and that requires an income."

Meanwhile, Association of Salaried Medical Specialists executive director Ian Powell has added his weight to calls for health boards to do more to lessen the burden on staff.

"Staff shortages and financial constraints are clearly starting to bite at some public hospitals," he said.

"These shortages might seem moderate to the Health Ministry but I bet they're not regarded that way by either the public or the doctors and nurses who have to deal with the day-to-day reality of too few people on the hospital wards."

Mr Powell said DHBs had signalled to the association they were increasingly strapped for cash and something will have to give.

Waikato, for example, had indicated it was looking for $40 million in savings in 2014-15. "The risk is that some DHBs, like Auckland, will reach for panic solutions which offer immediate financial relief, even though these solutions may have longer-term consequences for the provision of health services, quality of care, and the clinical workforce. This would be extremely unwise but in reality it reflects the broader issues of political under-investment in health care and the clinical workforce, which the Government needs to take responsibility for."

Mr Powell said entrenched shortages of hospital specialists had been the norm in New Zealand for years. The solution was greater investment in the workforce, more realistic funding for health boards to meet the actual costs of running a national health system, and to stop placing unrealistic expectations on health boards which then put unwarranted pressure on services.

- Waikato

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