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Desperate staff crying out for help


Wairarapa Emergency Department head Dr Norman Gray says the hospital is experiencing catastrophic staffing shortages. PHOTO/MARY ARGUE

Mary Argue
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Desperation is driving Wairarapa Hospital whistle-blowers to speak out about “catastrophic” staffing shortages.

Emergency department head Dr Norman Gray said the all-time low of one nurse working in ED on Sunday was symptomatic of a much wider and historic problem plaguing the hospital.

“We’re past the precipice. The disaster is already happening.

“We’ve been reluctant, but there is an element of desperation. We’ve been silent too long.”

He said years of attrition had culminated in a tipping point where staff were working “every day just to plug the gaps,” and statistics would bear out the reality of unsafe staffing levels.

Gray said that, while covid had added to the shortages, the primary problem at Wairarapa Hospital was retaining staff who felt under-appreciated.

He said direct managers flagging resource issues had been met with silence from executive and regional management, and the result was an “acute and chronic” staffing problem.

“I’ve heard the Health Minister saying the word  ‘crisis’ has been debased in healthcare, but we’re trying to get help.

“If he won’t respond to the data, perhaps he’ll respond to a more emotive word. It’s a catastrophe.”

Gray said ED wait time targets had declined rapidly in recent months.

The target of seeing 95 per cent of patients within six hours had dropped to about 75 per cent, he said.

“The six-hour target has been around for 20 years because statistics show that after that time, the mortality rate goes up.”

He said the emergency department had half the number of nurses rostered yesterday, meaning a nurse practitioner was taken out of circulation to cover, but the gaps in the roster extended beyond nurses.

“Normally, we have three doctors on, but we only have two. It’s the same tonight.

“There should be three, but we will have only two junior doctors and no senior.”

Gray said the nationwide health workforce shortage was exacerbated in the regions where smaller teams could not absorb the burden, and resource issues went beyond Wairarapa’s emergency department.

In his eight years at Wairarapa Hospital, he had seen the number of specialists decline from about 34 to about 20.

“The shortages are throughout the hospital and particularly in general medicine.

“It’s a compounding problem. The worse things get, the less attractive it is to work here.

“You want to retain the people you’ve got.

“When you look at them, you see the tiredness and stress on their faces.”

Gray said ED nurse morale was low, and it was a mystery why Wairarapa Hospital, unlike others in the Wellington region, did not incentivise nurses to take on extra shifts.

“It’s not a total solution, but it would be a good start to show genuine appreciation for those with the extra workload.”

In a meeting with charge nurses and midwives yesterday, Health NZ interim district manager Dale Oliff said the hospital would not offer incentives because a national incentive scheme was imminent.

Gray, however, said he feared any incentive would be tokenistic and only add insult to injury.

He said nurses risked being treated the same as orderlies or cleaners, who, while integral to the system, did not carry the same professional risk with staffing shortages.

“The risk to staff is the risk to their careers. They have to answer to the Health and Disability Commission.

“People will pass the blame down and offer tokenism. Which will be worse than offering nothing.”

“My fear is that the higher executives will blame middle management.

“If you’re the All Blacks, you’re thinking about firing the coach, not pointing the finger at the captain.”

Oliff was approached for comment.

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