MORE than 250 nurses and midwives at John Hunter Hospital have voted in favour of introducing industrial bans across the facility, unless Hunter New England Health addresses safe nursing staff numbers.
The Newcastle Herald has previously reported claims of major short-staffing in medical and surgical wards at the hospital, with a NSW Nurses and Midwives Association audit showing the hospital was 6695 nursing care hours short between the end of last December and June this year.
Members of the NSWNMA John Hunter Hospital Branch met and held a secret ballot on Monday after discussing the amount of time they were required to spend away from patients on their ward or unit, to complete follow-up discharge phone calls.
Brett Holmes, the general secretary of the NSWNMA, said the branch voted to implement a ban on the follow-up discharge phone calls from Thursday, unless Hunter New England Local Health District “immediately” introduced measures to address safe nursing staff numbers.
"The Hunter community is well aware that patient safety is paramount for our nurses and midwives – they want to provide the best possible care to everyone who comes into their ward or unit for treatment," Mr Holmes said.
"Hunter New England LHD’s policy for nurses and midwives to conduct all follow-up phone calls for discharged patients while they’re trying to look after current hospitalised patients has become an issue.
"We’ve already uncovered thousands of hours of nursing care missing at John Hunter as a result of Hunter New England LHD deliberately breaching the Public Health System Nurses and Midwives (state) Award by not rostering and recruiting the necessary staff."
Mr Holmes said while Hunter New England LHD had proposed several longer term recruitment solutions to address the understaffing issues at the major tertiary referral hospital, no immediate improvements were evident for nursing staff on the floor.
"We are talking to Hunter New England LHD, but our members are disappointed the measures they’ve proposed all have a long-term focus. There have been no immediate changes implemented, so nurses and midwives across a number of wards and units are still working short-staffed or required to work overtime.
"Our members are not suggesting that follow-up phone calls for discharged patients are not important in the Hunter. They are simply asking hospital management to allocate the calls to other clinicians and allied health staff, given the current understaffing of nurses and midwives," Mr Holmes said.
"Nurses and midwives should not be directed to complete follow-up discharge phone calls within the nursing hours that are required per patient per day under the state award."
Elizabeth Grist, the executive director of clinical services, nursing and midwifery, said John Hunter Hospital had been meeting their staffing requirements since the award breaches were brought to their attention in September.
“In the last month we have actually recruited 52 nursing positions, and that encompasses enrolled nurses, registered nurses, and midwives, so we have worked hard to fill vacancies,” she said.
“We have also made sure that we are consistently meeting the nursing hours to patient days, and we certainly have done, every week, since.”
Ms Grist conceded that not all of the new nursing staff had started in their roles, but the hospital had been meeting its full roster and quota of nursing and midwifery staff.
“That’s with our regular staff, also with agency and casual staff,” she said.
“Sick leave has dropped dramatically after the dreadful winter that we had. All of those things have actually eased the pressure on our nurses and midwives.
“And it’s only going to get better, as we have recruited all of those positions.”
Ms Grist said the amount of overtime “had dropped,” and their main focus was to support the nurses and midwives, and ensure they had a safe workplace.
“We’re doing everything we can t make sure that happens,” she said.
“We’re going to make sure allied health, medical staff and any nurses and midwives who don’t have a direct patient load are able to make those follow up phone calls, because those phone calls are so important to our patients and their safety.
“I want to reassure our nurses and midwives that we are listening, and we definitely do not want them to have any more of a workload or stress in any way.”
Ms Grist said each of the wards at the hospital averaged four follow-up phone calls a day.
“In the wards, if they feel they are not fully staffed… if there is any occasion they are not able to make those phone calls, we’re going to make sure it is not the nurses or the midwives who make the calls,” she said.
“We do appreciate what they do, and I know how hard they work. I want to listen and work through these issues with them.”
It comes as NSW Health issued a release to thank health workers across the system for their monumental work in battling influenza this season, as latest figures showed almost 100,000 flu notifications to date.
It was one of the busiest flu seasons in NSW since the 2009 pandemic, due to coincident outbreaks of influenza A and influenza B with notifications peaking at almost 50,000 during August.
Dr Jeremy McAnulty, NSW Health’s director of health protection, said the season is past its peak and we have emerged on the other side in “great shape”.
It was a “credit to staff and effective planning,” he said.
“New testing for flu was rolled out this year which meant more accurate diagnosis of the disease and better targeting of treatment,” Dr McAnulty said.
“It also meant there were a lot more positive tests than in previous years, skewing the notification figures.”
The total number of influenza notifications sits at 99,620. Over 583 outbreaks have been reported from aged care facilities and other institutional settings across the state this year.
“Despite the intensity of this flu season our hospital staff handled the increased demand extremely well and our health system has coped as a result,” Dr McAnulty said.
“So far in October we’ve seen a sharp decline in notifications – just over 2,000 flu cases have been notified.
“The symptoms of flu – fever, cough, runny nose, aches and pain, can be fairly non-specific.
“During peak times we encourage people to seek advice from their GPs and HealthDirect Australia (1800 022 222), a 24 hour helpline that provides immediate health advice online from registered nurses.
“If you are vulnerable to severe influenza see your doctor as soon as flu symptoms start as early treatment of flu can help prevent complications.”
Dr McAnulty said vaccination remained the best protection against flu.
“This is particularly important for people who are at risk, including people who are pregnant, over 65 years of age, have severe asthma, diabetes and heart conditions, as well as Aboriginal people aged six months to five years and over 15 years of age. The vaccination is free for these groups under the National Immunisation Program.”