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Higher Nurse-to-Patient Ratios Needed in NSW

By Dr Marjorie O'Neill, Member for Coogee on March 4, 2022 in Other

Overworked and underpaid. Photo: Lee Thargic

There are so many things in life we take for granted until they are taken away from us or we really need them. The standouts in most of our lives include loved ones, good health and access to nutritious food, clean water and air, education, housing and transport. These critical elements of a decent life are so often not appreciated until they are not there. COVID-19 has of course made us more aware of the many aspects of our lives that we should be grateful for. Our needs at this time have also forced us to recognise serious problems in our society that we had preferred to overlook, or were simply unaware of.
The crisis in our healthcare is now widely known and a matter of considerable community concern, but it has been in the making for a long time. For years, our nurses, doctors and healthcare staff have been talking about understaffing and unsafe working conditions that threaten the delivery of quality healthcare to the community. Those engaged in the delivery of healthcare services, and many of their recipients, have been aware of this looming crisis for years, but now we are all witnesses to nursing shortages, extended emergency waiting times, long waits for ambulances and even the absence of radiographers or radiologists at a major regional hospital. Behind these now highly visible problems are exhausted, overworked, stressed and underpaid healthcare workers who have put their own lives in danger to be our frontline defence during a pandemic.
I have personally experienced the very best and worst of our healthcare system. During the 2019 election, my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and spent extended time in and out of hospital. Nursing and allied healthcare staff were almost always amazing in their delivery of quality care, yet cracks in the system were already evident in staff turnover, reliance on casual contract staff and inadequate staffing levels, particularly on weekends. The current problems in our healthcare system are nothing new. COVID has simply highlighted issues that have been bubbling away and increasingly worsening as even more pressure has been put on our already stretched healthcare system.
Understaffing is rife across public hospitals. There are simply not enough nurses or midwives being rostered on each shift, resulting in workplace fatigue and dangerous workplace conditions. Emergency and surgical wait times continue to balloon. Kitchen staff without sufficient training are being required to care for patients. Incidences of violence in hospitals continue to grow. There are not enough nurses per patients and it’s putting patients’ lives at risk.
As workloads and stress grow, a worsening spiral is fuelled. Increasingly I hear from local fantastic nurses that they are burnt out, afraid and are looking to move to Queensland or Victoria, as these states have nurse-to-patient ratios and more recently these governments have provided COVID allowances to healthcare staff to recognise the huge amount of additional pressure they are under at this time.
We need better staff-to-patient ratios to safeguard the future of our public health system. I have been an unwavering supporter of nurse-to-patient ratios for years. Good nurse-to-patient ratios ensure a safe level of care and decrease the risk of poor patient outcomes, as well as unnecessary deaths. Without the right ratios, patients across NSW are missing out on thousands of hours of much-needed nursing care. Research over the past 20 years has shown a direct correlation between nurse staffing levels and improved patient outcomes. Research conducted on ratios implemented in Queensland show 185 lives have been saved since the policy came into effect and a further 255 readmissions were prevented. If patient care is not enough justification, since Queensland implemented ratios, the government there has saved $70 million attributable to the improvement in patient outcomes.
Fighting for nurse-to-patient ratios and appropriate staffing levels throughout our health system, supported by required levels of funding and resources, is something we all have an interest in, because at some point in our lives we will all need – and deserve – a quality healthcare system. Safe staffing levels save lives and make good economic sense!