17 Oct 2017

Mental health service cuts beds over staff woes

5:42 am on 17 October 2017

The only acute mental health unit on Auckland's North Shore has been forced to close five beds because it can't find staff.

Empty hospital bed, generic

Photo: 123RF

For months, staff at He Puna Waiora have worked double shifts of 16 hours or longer, often dealing with violent and aggressive patients.

A Public Service Association spokesperson said the shortage of nurses had forced the ward to reduce its bed numbers for seven weeks.

PSA national secretary Erin Polaczuk said the ward had 12 vacancies for mental health workers and a number of vacancies for mental health assistants.

The shortage of nurses had forced the ward to reduce its beds for seven weeks, the PSA said. It's understood four nurses left their jobs last week.

Ms Polaczuk said the staff shortages had placed pressure on staff to work double shifts.

"A week recently ... there were 35 double shifts worked. There would almost be no days where there is not somebody on shift who has a double.

"It's been going on for some months and obviously it's at the point now where it can no longer continue," she said.

The union said the pressure on staff had increased the risk of violent and aggressive behaviour by patients.

Waitemata District Health Board said it took the measure to protect staff and patients while it trained new staff. It had four new staff arriving over the next few weeks, with more to follow.

Ms Polaczuk said it was unclear how long the beds would remain closed, however.

"We don't actually know if they will be able to open up in seven weeks again, we will just have to wait and see. They're closing for that period to see if they can get the staffing for it to continue, but it's not clear whether other closures will be needed to maintain safe staffing levels in future," she said.

Ms Polaczuk said the closures meant the acutely unwell would be turned away or forced to attend the hospital's emergency department.

"That's already an area under immense amount of pressure as well.

"Worst case scenario they present to the police because they're out in the community and people are worried about them and have nowhere to go," she said.

In the meantime, the DHB said it was working with community providers who had beds available.

Waitemata's general manager of specialist mental health and addiction services, Pam Lightbown, said it had no choice but to take the action it had.

"Staff and patient safety is our highest priority and we are focussed on recruiting suitably qualified health professionals to ensure we continue to deliver best care. We are making good progress and look forward to having the five beds back in service as soon as possible," she said.

The PSA said the closures showed the strain on mental health services had reached breaking point.

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