Strike action: Nurses need to hear out under-pressure government

4:14 pm on 10 July 2018

By Jenny Carryer*

Opinion - The news that nurses will strike on Thursday is deeply disappointing. As a long-time leader of nursing I have to confess to feeling ashamed.

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Photo: 123RF

I am also sure that large numbers of nurses will be distraught at striking because it cuts to the very heart of nurses to abandon patients at their most vulnerable.

As a result of the strike, parents of babies in neonatal units will be scared, patients on complex drug and intravenous regimes or in high dependency areas will feel unsafe, frail people in pain will have less care and many people will have long awaited services cancelled or delayed. Emotions will be running high.

I am disappointed because what has been achieved through the industrial action so far (in terms of what has been promised) is very valuable given that it comes from a government and DHB system under severe pressure.

The gains made have also come at a time and in a country where numerous people are making equally valid claims about their pay and working conditions.

This government has been clear that attention to nursing is long overdue but there is a limit to available resource and it is not only nurses who have such valid demands. We need to hear that for now as an act of good faith.

However despite my concern, I do understand some of the anger and despair that has led us to this point.

While much of the debate has hinged around pay, the real anger in nursing comes from years of arguing that understaffing is serious and that nurses are tired of going home every day feeling that patients have been let down.

DHBs have fallen into the trap of seeing nurses as their biggest budget item and a budget item constantly in need of pruning.

We have provided irrevocable evidence of the links between registered nurse staffing and patient safety, between postgraduate education and patient outcomes and copious evidence about the patient care that is missed through inadequate staffing.

Nurses will tell us that in many situations they work to keep people alive but the niceties of care and comfort have long been sacrificed.

Therefore, I understand why the nurses who have voted to strike are not confident that the promises will change working conditions.

There needs to be a major culture shift within the management structures of many DHBs that heeds the evidence and values the links between safe staffing and patient safety.

Furthermore, there needs to be recognition that pruning nursing services to the bone as a matter of principle is not cost effective in the longer term.

There is a clear link between inadequate nurse staffing and readmission rates, adverse events and a high level of patient complaints. These all cost money.

There are also clear links between high levels of costly nursing turnover and lack of job satisfaction.

Imagine how distracted nurses are right now by all that has happened and will happen. Having distracted nurses is in itself unsafe.

This is a worrying situation and I understand the anger but this was a time to accept what has been achieved, to accept what has been promised but to keep a very close eye that in the future nursing will be taken seriously and seen as a critical investment in cost effective patient safety.

*Professor of Nursing at Massey University, Executive Director of The NZ College of Nurses. Currently Chair of the Health Workforce NZ workforce advisory group( NWAG) and the NZ Nurse Leaders group( NNO).

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