Health Minister refuses to take up emergency nurse's challenge

7:48 pm on 16 July 2021

Health Minister Andrew Little is refusing to take up a nurse's challenge to spend 10 hours or more in Middlemore Hospital's emergency department (ED) to see the pressure frontline health workers are under.

The Ministry of Health’s briefing to Andrew Little as the incoming minister was released on Tuesday and made for stark reading and highlighted the fact the country’s health system was overstretched, underfunded and inequitable

Photo: Stuff / Ross Giblin

A spokeswoman said he would only get in the way of operations, but remained concerned by workloads faced by EDs around the country.

A nurse from Auckland's Middlemore Hospital this week challenged Little and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to spend the time in its ED to see first-hand the "terrifying" daily pressures health workers are facing.

Counties Manukau Health recently confirmed the hospital's ED has been under pressure, with 415 people coming through the doors in one day last month. The usual daily number is around 300.

Public hospitals and primary healthcare providers in the Auckland region have been overwhelmed by patients with viruses, including an outbreak of RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus).

The health worker wanted to remain anonymous and said they feared being identified as it could jeopardise their career, but in an open letter said: "It is not uncommon for us to have up to 200 patients in ED at any one time with 60 or more waiting for a bed on the ward but there is simply no capacity to provide this. Every day we are bed-blocked and every day the situation becomes more dire.

"We have, and always will be extremely busy and under-resourced, however we have previously just 'carried on' and muddled our way through 'the bad days' in one way or another, but something has changed and it's terrifying!"

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Photo: 123rf

In response to the health worker's letter a spokesperson for Little said he and the prime minister are "interested in and concerned" about conditions and services in hospital emergency departments.

"The minister is regularly briefed by clinicians and visits EDs at the invitation of hospitals, and would not want to get in the way of the operations of an ED."

Little said the government had committed $5.8 billion towards operational funding in the last four years, after years of underfunding.

"Part of that additional money has gone into funding an extra 3000 nurse roles across the system to support the Safe Staffing Accord agreed to with nurses in 2018," he said.

"That said, we know there are a large number of vacancies and we have asked to work with the Nurses Organisation on how we fill those vacancies."

But New Zealand Nurses Organisation professional nursing advisor Suzanne Rolls welcomed the idea of getting the minister of health and the prime minister to see what's happening on the frontline.

"They need to see first hand what is happening," Rolls said.

Rolls said nurses are leaving the industry because of burn-out and stopping that loss has to be a top priority for the government.

She said unreasonable workload pressures are putting patient safety at risk in hospital emergency departments around the country.

A spokesperson for Counties Manukau Health refused to answer questions about the nurses challenge, but said the ED at Middlemore Hospital has been extremely busy with overall volumes very high compared to previous years.

And high numbers of sick children have driven the spike.

"Counties Manukau Health takes this situation very seriously and has been working on a number of strategies," they said.

"We're regularly reporting on the status of the hospital and actively managing patient flow through ED and the hospital to ensure beds are freed up as soon as possible."

The prime minister's office has been contacted for comment.

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