Shortage of nurses runs deep
Lack of consultation over plans to fix nurse shortages has professional bodies worried, reports Health editor Adam Cresswell
YOU know you have a problem when one of the groups that might be expected to be cock-a-hoop over your plans to fix some pressing health workforce problem continues to ring the alarm bell. To talk specifics, the recent Labor pledge to create up to 1000 new undergraduate training places for nurses by 2009 would normally be considered a sure-fire vote-winner. More nurses equals speedier and better care for patients, and more professional support for existing nurses. It’s a win-win, right?
Not so fast, says the Council of Deans of Nursing and Midwifery, which represents the heads of the nursing schools — exactly the group one might think would be most pleased at such an increase.
Labor’s plan, announced last week, would create an extra 500 nursing places at universities next year, rising to 1000 places the year after. But CDNM chairman Professor John Daly says it’s akin to a ‘‘ chequebook approach’’ — a view that makes the council distinctly less positive than the more glowing reactions from the nursing unions such as the Australian Nursing Federation.
‘‘ We think it’s going to take more than increasing capacity for educating people for the workforce,’’ Daly said. ‘‘ Just creating extra positions in the university system, or even TAFE, is not going to be enough, I don’t think. More work needs to be done about getting a better understanding of why nurses are leaving, and how to retain nurses in the workplace.’’
Of course most interest groups, in whatever field, would get down on bended knee to welcome a ‘‘ chequebook approach’’ with open arms.
But the CDNM says in this case it fails to take into account wider issues. For anyone wondering ‘‘ what issues?’’, a glance at the most recent statistics on the nursing work- force should put them rapidly to rights.
Not that it’s all gloom. On the plus side, the Nursing and midwifery labour force 2004 report, published last December by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, makes clear there were more employed nurses in 2004 than the similar report two years earlier, having risen from 228,230 to 249,458. Not only that, but they were working longer hours: up from 30.7 to 32.8 on average.
But the workforce continues to age rapidly, threatening a crisis if nothing is done and large numbers start to retire all at once in 10 or 15 years’ time. In 2004 nearly one-third — 29.8 per cent — of nurses were aged 50 or over, and the average age has increased from 41.2 in 1999, to 42.2 in 2001 — and up again to 43.3 in 2004.
The ANF and the College of Nursing have both welcomed Labor’s plans to increase undergraduate training places, with the ANF describing the move as ‘‘ a good first step’’ and the college also applauding it.
Their comments were certainly much warmer than their reaction to the Coalition federal Government’s announcement in September that it would recreate a network of clinical schools within hospitals to train nurses, a program forecast to cost $170 million over five years.
The nursing bodies have since tempered some of their initial criticism of this plan, after it became clear that the scheme relates to enrolled nurses — who are currently trained within the TAFE sector — and not university-trained registered nurses.
However, ANF assistant federal secretary Ged Kearney says even bearing this in mind, the Coalition plan is still flawed because unlike the era when nurses used to be trained inside hospitals, patients’ stays were much shorter and ‘‘ there’s no such thing as an ‘ easy’ patient any more’’.
‘‘ I trained in hospital when the average stay was 10 days,’’ Kearney says. ‘‘ You would go in before your operation, if you were a surgical patient; you might have two to three
On the march: Victorian nurses demonstrate during this week’s industrial dispute in Melbourne