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Lack of staff leaves sick kids waiting

A shortage of intensive care nurses is leaving children waiting to receive the help they need.

Each day six Australian children are born with heart problems, with many requiring operations to give them a chance at life.

Childhood heart disease (CHD) is one of the most common and deadly childhood diseases and is the most common reason for admission of Australian children to intensive care units.

However with an international shortage of intensive care nurses and a lack of awareness, many of these children are left waiting to receive the help they need.

This “failing in the health system” will be the focus of a report which has been commissioned by support and advocacy group HeartKids Australia.

Due to be released in June, the research will look at Australia’s treatment of children with CHD, with the aim of developing a recommendation model of best practices.

To be conducted by Professor Sandra Leggat from La Trobe University’s school of public health, the independent research is to start this month.

HeartKids CEO Neil McWhannell says nurses, cardiologists, surgeons, hospitals, patients and their parents would all have a say in examining the system’s successes and failings.

“It will look at the needs across the entire country,” he says.

“We hope the paper will come up with informed recommendations on the appropriate levels, methods and practice of care.”

Despite children dying every week from CHD, there has never been a comprehensive study, says McWhannell.

He says one of the major issues needing attention was staffing levels.

“Hospitals are constantly having issues with their ability to find trained intensive care nurses in sufficient numbers to schedule operations,” he says.

“Recently there was a baby in Perth who was taken into the operating theatre only to be wheeled out again because of lack of staff.

“It is absolutely atrocious. And this isn’t an isolated case.”

“Nurses and surgeons give 100 per cent every day but it’s still a struggle to keep up with demand.

The shortage of nurses has been a major issue across the country for some time now and when you hear that critically-ill children are having surgery cancelled in part because of this, it is frightening.”

Difficulties in finding intensive care nurses to staff beds, means urgent and emergency cases are having to take precedence on elective.

Last year Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH) came under fire when a number of children’s operations became victim to its growing cardiac waiting list.

The RCH is Australia’s leading hospital for children with heart conditions, treating patients from all over the country. Heart kids are the largest single user group of the hospital, and particularly of surgery and ICU. Currently around 80 per cent of South Australian’s with CHD go to RCH.

However last year it was under enormous pressure with heart patients taking up intensive care beds and critical operations cancelled, often at the last minute.

In August last year the state government announced it would fund a new four-bed progressive care unit, a nurse coordinator and intensive care nurse scholarships.

An RCH spokeswoman told The Age the hospital was now working through its cardiac waiting list and the picture “is a lot better than it was”.

McWhannell says the hospital seemed to be coping, but the pressures that created the problem still existed.

It, and other hospitals, operates within a system under enormous strain, says McWhannell.

“This research will not just be looking at RCH. It is a national issue and not just confined to a single hospital.

“For one of the country’s most serious conditions, it (CHD) has among the lowest awareness out in the population — and among our politicians and bureaucrats.

“When dealing with children you can’t help but to let emotions get involved. This research will provide solid information which will hopefully make for a brighter future.”

HeartKids Australia has its Childhood Heart Disease awareness month in February. Go to www.heartkids.org.au

Children’s heart disease: the facts

• One in 100 kids are born with heart disease – that is six babies every day across Australia
• For the first time in Australia’s history there are more people aged over 20 with CHD than under. In the past most of these ‘blue babies’ died at birth.
• Heart disease is the greatest killer of children under the age of 5 taking more lives than all other childhood diseases combined – it accounts for 35 per cent of all childhood deaths
• More than 5 children die each week as a result of their heart condition
• Heart disease is the most common reason for admission of Australian children to intensive care units – CHD kids fill around half the intensive care beds.
• There is currently very little support offered to research into CHD, despite the fact that in around 80 per cent of cases the cause is largely unknown.
• Australia has the highest rates of rheumatic fever in the world. This is rife in the indigenous communities and causes major damage to the heart valves.
• Approximately half of children diagnosed with heart disease require surgery or medication

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