10 May 2024

Nurses protest, warn patients being left in pain, soiled beds due to staffing shortages

9:34 am on 10 May 2024

By Georgie Hanafin

Nurses rally in Christchurch on 9 May 2024.

Nurses rally in Christchurch on Thursday. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

Patient care is being compromised in public hospitals and desperate people are being left waiting for pain relief and in soiled beds, nurses say.

It comes as healthcare workers rally for extra budget funding for staff.

Hundreds protested in cities around the country on Thursday, waving signs and handing out yellow pamphlets warning of a chronic shortage of at least 4000 nurses.

About 20 healthcare workers protested outside Taranaki Base Hospital in New Plymouth.

Healthcare assistant Tony Nicholas said 25 to 50 percent of shifts in wards throughout the country were under staffed, with mental health services hit hardest.

He said the situation needed to change and more money found to hire and retain staff.

Te Whatu Ora data obtained by the New Zealand Nurses Organisation (NZNO) showed over a quarter of nursing shifts fell short of safe staffing targets in the year to December.

Nurses rally in New Plymouth on 9 May 2024.

Nurses rally in New Plymouth on Thursday. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Burwood Hospital spinal injury unit nurse Debbie Handisides said she was heartbroken when staff could not properly care for people.

"It's their families that are sitting beside them holding their hand wondering, 'where is the nurse? I asked for pain relief 10 minutes ago. What's happening? My husband's getting in more pain'," she said.

"They're crying. It's heartbreaking. We rule with our hearts and our hearts every day are going home burnt out. It's not what I chose to be a nurse for."

The psychological effects of missing out on basic care were dehumanising, Handisides said.

"You imagine having to lie and wait when you've already soiled yourself and you can't get the help to clean up. They can't do it for themselves," she said.

Handisides said nurses were burnt out and scared.

"We've got staff injuries because they're burnt out. They're leaving work tired. They're arriving back tired. They're scared. They're worrying about how many staff they're going to have on. We're doing care rationing. We are making patients go without the basics or personal hygiene to try and put the life preserving care in," she said.

At Auckland's North Shore Hospital, Stacey said nurses tried their best for their patients and it was hard to come up short.

"We work like machines - but of course there is compassion all the time. We are just human. We can't give everything and that's why we need the government to support us," she said.

One woman described being the only healthcare assistant on her ward of 36 patients.

"My team leader, I told her, I can not answer all the bells because I am the only one on the floor. And all the nurses were busy as well," she said.

Several nurses spoke about how they had to focus on urgent care and delay less pressing things like showering patients.

Julie Lampitt is a Nurses' Organisation delegate and had been a nurse for 47 years.

"Things have got tougher and tougher and tougher and its so sad," she said.

"We want the government to give more money to the hospitals and the public health so that they can do their job and save people.

New Zealand Nurses Organisation chief executive Paul Goulter at a rally in Christchurch on 9 May 2024.

NZNO chief executive Paul Goulter. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

The NZNO said the introduction of nurse-to-patient ratios in other countries had improved the quality of care patients received, including most Australian states, California, British Colombia, Ireland and Wales.

NZNO chief executive Paul Goulter said the healthcare system was in crisis, with staffing shortages extending to aged care, primary health and general practices.

"If the government doesn't step in, the situation will get worse," he said.

"It's patients that are going to suffer. The very people who deserve the best care globally that they can receive are not going to get it. And as always happens in these circumstances, the people at the bottom of the heap, they get kicked over first."

Health NZ has been contacted for comment.

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