ED nurses to fight for more staff

‘LIKE trying to nail jelly to a wall’ is Nursing Association organiser Jo-Anne McKeough’s description of trying to solve the problem of Coffs Harbour’s overstretched emergency department (ED) under the present health system.

Ms McKeough, the North Coast organiser for the NSW Nurses Association and nurses from the Coffs Harbour Health Campus, campaigned early this year for an extra registered nurse on night duty at Coffs Harbour ED.

After concerted action, they gained an extra enrolled nurse for the Department and they are still assessing the results.

“The staff agreed to ‘suck it and see’ how they could manage with that and if not, go back to the table (for further negotiations),” Ms McKeough said.

Now they are mobilising to fight for a more permanent solution to at least some of the problems besetting the State’s hospitals.

On November 20 nurses will rally to push for the establishment of a patient-staff ratio of one nurse to four patients.

Ms McKeough said research had established this figure as the best for patients and staff.

Reduced ratios have been credited with substantial improvement in the Victorian hospital system.

Victorian premier John Brumby recently announced a re-elected Labor government would increase ratios in all public hospitals.

November 1 and 2 were horror nights in Coffs Harbour’s emergency department with seriously ill people waiting up to eight hours for treatment and the Coffs Coast’s entire fleet of seven ambulances lined up at the hospital at one point on Monday night – without a major road accident.

One nursing mother spent more than nine hours in ED on November 1 with her baby and a screaming toddler, waiting to see a doctor about her two-year-old child’s stomach pains. On November 2 one man found himself hunting for a rubbish bin for a vomiting woman and watching others give up and depart untreated in obvious pain during his marathon wait in ED.

In spite of horror stories like these, most people who have had to use ED can also tell stories of arriving at a quiet time and receiving prompt treatment.

But they are becoming less common.

“There is a desperate need for additional resources at night,” Jo-Anne McKeough said.

“They are only just meeting the need in the day, and at night staff are barely able to meet the needs of the community.

“In any one night, nurses start with patients already there. They might turn over a bed five, six or seven times and bed block is an issue, especially at night.”

She agreed figures showed Coffs Harbour ED was under pressure, saying the last figures she looked at earlier this year showed more than 100 presentations a day.

The trouble with putting unbearable pressure on ED is that it leads to more mistakes and resignations by staff and poorer outcomes for patients, as shown by the hospital figures and risk assessment information recently leaked to Coffs Harbour MP Andrew Fraser.

This showed Coffs Harbour ED needed more than eight full-time equivalent medical staff, to achieve parity with other North Coast hospitals, leading to an increased risk of errors in an environment where staffing levels do not match demand and increased risk of staff burn-out.

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