Short­age of nurses runs deep

Lack of con­sul­ta­tion over plans to fix nurse short­ages has pro­fes­sional bod­ies wor­ried, re­ports Health ed­i­tor Adam Cress­well

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Health -

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

Pic­ture: David Crosland

On the march: Vic­to­rian nurses demon­strate dur­ing this week’s in­dus­trial dis­pute in Melbourne

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