Hospital shake-up sparks stoush by nurses

By Alex Easton

HOSPITAL overcrowding will be cut by a new program to free-up beds by treating patients with minor illnesses in their homes, North Coast Area Health Service chief executive Chris Crawford says.

The plan has prompted the NSW Nurses’ Association to warn beds and staff numbers at North Coast hospitals would be cut.

The Nurses’ Association will today hold the first in a series of dispute meetings it warns could escalate into industrial action over the plan to transform 86 beds into ‘surge’ beds for times when the service is overloaded; treat some patients in their homes; and cut out one nursing shift each day in 14 hospitals, including the overcrowded Lismore Base Hospital.

The association says it learned last week of the plan to turn eight beds at Lismore and six beds at 13 other North Coast hospitals – Ballina, Casino, Mullumbimby, Murwillumbah, Tweed, and Grafton among them – into surge beds.

However, Mr Crawford said the health service had been working on the plan with the Department of Health since March last year specifically to cut pressure on the hospitals.

Mr Crawford said the work to date had been in setting up the facilities to let community nurses treat patients with illnesses such as asthma, diabetes and mild heart conditions in their homes, and for an ‘express care’ outpatient clinic.

Once launched, the program is expected to free up the 86 beds, allowing them to be held in reserve for times when the numbers of people checking into the hospital ‘surged’.

Mr Crawford agreed the idea could not work unless systems were in place to take care of patients currently using the beds.

He said the program was ready to go, but was on hold while discussions were held with the Nurses’ Association.

The stoush follows revelations in The Northern Star last October showing occupancy rates in most wards running beyond 90 per cent, and some running at more than 100 per cent, compared with an accepted 85 per cent safe benchmark.

Nurses’ Association organisation manager Susan Pearce said the association had no objection to treating patients at home, but said the region’s community nurses were already overworked and the plan couldn’t work without more community nurses.

Likewise, nurses at the hospitals were also overworked and opposed to any reduction in staff numbers or hours.

A statement from the Nurses’ Association quotes from a memo from Mr Crawford to hospital managers saying the ‘new’ surge beds were to be used only during times of ‘particularly high peaks in demand’, and that they would be staffed ‘as required by staff rostered on an ad hoc basis’.

In the memo he warns hospital managers that ‘excessive use of the surge beds and/or additional pressure on the emergency department’ would indicate their management was ‘not satisfactory’.

Mr Crawford said the quotes were accurate, but incomplete. The comments were made in the context of instructing hospital managers to use the new hospital in the home system.

Lismore Base Hospital staff medical council spokesman Dr Chris Ingall and Lismore MP Thomas George questioned the logic of reducing the number of general hospital beds to create the surge beds.

“Any relabelling of beds is just shifting deck chairs on the Titanic,” Dr Ingall said.

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