Shortage of nurses runs deep
From Health cover
days getting ‘‘ worked up’’, having blood tests, X-rays and fasting; and you would hang around for a few days afterwards, convalescing and having your drains taken out.
‘‘ Now the average stay is more like three days and people go home with their drains still in. Everyone in hospital is at the very pointy end of their health need — to put a very unskilled first-year nurse into that environment is very unfair, and very unsafe.’’
But while the ANF is much more positive about Labor’s plan to increase university training places for registered nurses, Kearney concedes more also needs to be done to make sure the hospital system has the capacity to accept these extra nurses when they are ready for clinical placements — something that is far from certain currently.
‘‘ What we are hearing from the universities is that it’s very difficult to get places in the hospitals for clinical training,’’ Kearney says.
As the head of the body representing the university nursing schools, this is exactly Daly’s point.
‘‘ It’s not as simple as just increasing the number of places in the university sector. Certainly that would help,’’ he says. ‘‘ But the university schools of nursing have issues at the moment because we can’t access the clinical places for students who have already gone through the system.
‘‘ The shortage of clinical places, and of registered nurses who can be employed to do the clinical teaching, limits the numbers of students we can put into the system, because we can’t find the nurses (to supervise them).’’
Daly says ‘‘ a number of strategies’’ are required to fix the situation, one of them being more concrete steps to attract back into the workforce some of the estimated 30,000 nurses no longer working in the profession but still engaged enough to maintain their professional registration — suggesting they are keeping the option of a return open.
‘‘ If the workforce is losing people, then we have a problem,’’ Daly says. ‘‘ We have lost a lot of experienced registered nurses, so junior nurses don’t have the role models. If more can be done to bring them back, that would be helpful.’’
But what will work best to reconstitute some of this nursing diaspora is itself a matter of contention.
Labor has also announced cash bonuses to attract former nurses back into the profession. Under the plans, nurses who return will be paid $3000 after six months, and a further $3000 after 18 months — an attempt to minimise the risk that some will sign on, collect the cash, and then quit once again.
Labor says 7750 nurses could benefit from this scheme, but already another of the nursing bodies is warning it could ‘‘ also have a negative effect on our current nursing workforce’’ if it goes ahead in the way proposed.
‘‘ I have had responses from existing nurses who have stuck with the present system as other have left,’’ explains Tracey Osmond, chief executive of the College of Nursing.
‘‘ A number have called me direct and said ‘ I feel a bit miffed they are going to give a handout when I have been stuck here all along’.
‘‘ I have had a couple of people saying they are about to hand in their resignations — and they will be back again when they are entitled to this $6000 bonus.’’
All the professional bodies say they were disappointed not to be consulted by the parties before these plans were drawn up, particularly the Coalition’s proposal to shift training back into hospitals, the plan they oppose the most.
Another reason why nursing is in a pickle, according to Kearney, is that much of the data on nursing is out of date — the most recent data, for 2004, being a case in point — and the system suffers from there being noone at a federal level to argue for nursing’s needs.
‘‘ Nursing makes up over half the health workforce, and yet we don’t really have anyone at a federal level co-ordinating that,’’ she says, adding there should be a federal Office of Nursing headed by a bureaucrat with the same status as the existing Chief Medical Officer.
Kearney also thinks too much focus is placed on hospitals and throwing money at them ‘‘ willy-nilly’’.
‘‘ They are by far the biggest employer of nurses, but a lot of nurses leave from burnout, from stress, and from not being able to provide adequate care,’’ she says.
‘‘ We have to stop looking at just hospitals. What we are calling for, from any party, is to look across the board at how we can take pressure off the system.
‘‘ People are throwing money at the hospitals, but if they started throwing money at primary care and aged care, that would reduce a lot of pressure on hospitals.’’