NURSES at John Hunter Hospital say they are at “breaking point,” with low staffing levels and a steep rise in patient numbers during a record flu season leaving staff “burned out” and “exhausted.”
A nurse working at the hospital told the Newcastle Herald that nursing staff had been forced to work double shifts with little notice, sometimes three-to-four times during the one week.
It meant they were often missing out on sleep.
“Nurses are coming in on an afternoon shift, and halfway through their shift they will be told by management that there is no staff available for the night shift, so they have to do a double shift,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Even if you say you don’t want to, they say, ‘Well, we can force you.’ It is apparently in the award, and it’s referred to as an ‘acceptable amount’ of overtime – whereas this is totally not an acceptable amount. It’s not safe.”
He said some areas of the hospital, such as “day stay” and the dialysis unit, had been temporarily converted into wards to accommodate extra patients.
“And then they expect us to staff the extra beds when we are already understaffed,” he said. “Everyone is burned out and exhausted, and you have nurses administering drugs when they have gone the whole night without having a sleep. They are flogging us into the ground.”
More than 100 members of the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association (NSWNMA) met at the hospital on Thursday to discuss it.
NSWNMA general secretary Brett Holmes said they addressed issues including “inadequate” levels of patient care, the opening of unfunded and understaffed beds, forced excessive overtime, unreplaced sick leave, missed meal breaks and unpaid overtime.
“The situation at John Hunter Hospital is dire and many of the staff are close to breaking point. The gross level of under-staffing that has occurred for some time is completely unacceptable,” he said.
The NSWNMA branch will meet again next week.
Debbie Bradley, John Hunter Hospital general manager, said of the 229 patients who had presented to the emergency department (ED) with confirmed cases of Influenza A and B in August, 156 were admitted for care, compared to 32 last year.
“Staff members have been going above and beyond to ensure we continue to meet the demands of the community and I am grateful for their commitment during this challenging period,” she said. “We regularly review staff overtime. Where we have identified a staff member who has worked longer hours more regularly, we have spoken with their nurse manager and requested that they not be approached for additional hours moving forward.”
Ms Bradley said increased and improved testing had also contributed to the spike in flu figures.
“While demand on our hospital, especially the ED, has been undeniably high, our staff have been working hard to ensure patients receive high quality and safe care.”
The nurse who contacted the Herald said rather than close beds, send patients elsewhere, or discharge patients who did not have to be there, the hospital kept opening up new beds in any available space.
His colleagues who had worked at the hospital for years had said the surge of patients, and accompanying staffing levels, were the worst they had seen.
“They put on a ‘staff appreciation luncheon’ where they had a few crappy sandwiches, because they know that we’re at breaking point,” he said. “They thought, ‘We’ll tide them over with a few ham sandwiches.’
“This is across the whole hospital. And everyone is furious.”