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Healthcare can’t breathe


Stressed, tired, short-staffed
Nurses under more pressure

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The outbreak among babies and young children of RSV [Respiratory Syncytial Virus] is putting an already stretched healthcare system under even more pressure, with Wairarapa healthcare workers describing the system as ‘broken’.

Lucy McLaren, a nurse practitioner in the Emergency Department of Wairarapa Hospital and Melanie Quinn, an associate charge nurse and manager of community nursing and support services across the region, spoke to the Times-Age about the unsafe working conditions that brought the profession out on strike across New Zealand and look set to do so again.

“This RSV is worse, to my thinking, than covid was for us, because we have so many sick babies coming to ED,” McLaren said.

“We are getting four or five times our normal presentation numbers.

“We have to put on full PPE [personal protective equipment] to see these babies, we have to steam clean the rooms after they leave. We have a whole ward full of babies who are unwell.

“This is as busy as we have ever been. In a normal eight-hour shift, you would normally see one or maybe two babies. Last week we had 15 or 16,” she said.

“The hospital has done a really great job,” McLaren said, praising the work her colleagues were doing in the circumstances.

Caring for patients of all ages is coming at a cost to the healthcare staff, many of whom are leaving the profession or heading to Australia. Across the ditch, nurses are reported to be paid about 30 per cent more than in New Zealand.

Stressed, tired, short staffed, underpaid and lacking the tools and technology needed, are just some of the conditions the two Wairarapa nurses described.

They said the unsafe working conditions in Wairarapa and across New Zealand are putting lives at risk.

McLaren and Quinn are both delegates of the New Zealand Nurses Organisation, the organisation negotiating on behalf of nurses with District Health Boards for more pay and safer working conditions.

The two nurses have combined nursing experience of more than 64 years and say they have never seen the system as overstretched and dangerous as it is now.

They agreed lives were on the line.

“When people are stressed, errors are made,” Quinn said.

“If you rush, you don’t do your job properly. You drop your processes,” McLaren said.

Medication errors and healthcare workers tripping and falling were examples.

“Two years ago, well before your night shift had finished, you were on top of your workload. We used to have time to restock, tidy up and be ready for the morning team. We don’t have that anymore,” McLaren said.

She said now, patients often spent the entire night in the ED waiting to be seen.

“My last three shifts haven’t been fully staffed because people have been sick. The roster is lacking staff because we haven’t been able to recruit.”

McLaren described the part of the hospital meant to supplement the ED but had never been fully set up.

“The Acute Assessment Unit [AAU] is where overflow patients are meant to go.”

She said space was so limited in the hospital, equipment was piled up, blocking the way.

“Sometimes when I come into work, I have to actually crawl across a bed to get to my desk, or move equipment to get to my desk because we have nowhere to store equipment in the hospital either. It wasn’t built with a decent storeroom.

“Night shifts are go go go. It’s not uncommon for us not to have a break at all on a night shift,” she said.

Quinn said the facilities and system were built and designed for a much smaller population.

People were also living longer, often meaning they had complex medical conditions needing careful management.

Quinn and McLaren both said the technology was inadequate with most notes being paper-based, wasting time and delaying the time it took to make decisions.

The 30,000 members of the NZNO working in DHBs had voted in favour of three more strikes.

On Friday afternoon, the union withdrew a strike action set for July 29, and said significant progress had been made in negotiations with district health boards in the latest collective agreement.

It would be presenting the offer to members next week.

Unless agreement is reached, further strikes will be on August 19 [8 hours] and September 9-10 [24 hours].

Wairarapa DHB manager of communications Anna Cardno said the DHB was proud to have an excellent and highly valued nursing team that provided a pivotal service which was central to the healthcare of the community.

Cardno said it was not appropriate to comment further at this time.

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