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Double shifts reach ‘epidemic’ levels

In the past two months, nurses at the Royal Hobart Hospital (RHH) have worked more than 400 double shifts of 17 hours.

It’s a situation that Neroli Ellis, Tasmanian branch president of the Australian Nursing Federation (ANF), classifies as an “epidemic”.

“There were 420 double shifts worked over the past two months, and that’s without calculating the shifts that worked one nurse short because they just couldn’t get anyone to do extra double shifts,” she said.

Cuts over the past year have seen the RHH lose 280 nurses and reduce the graduate intake. It has been forced to open beds with no permanent staff attached, relying on casuals and nurses working doubles to fill the gaps.

“We also had nursing vacancies and positions not being recruited in a timely manner. So the double shifts are to fill shortages, sick leave and the flexing of beds without any staffing system,” Ellis said.

The emergency department is at crisis point, with nurses now refusing to do double shifts.

“We are seeing the inevitable over the winter period – an increase in patient demand – and emergency departments have really been pushed to the brink,” said Ellis.

“Nurses will always continue to provide the best care possible, but after 17 hours, research does show that it affects your decision-making and ability to provide the care required.”

The ANF has asked the RHH for a vacancies list and for an active recruitment strategy to be implemented.

“We want to ensure we have all of the positions filled and we don’t have rosters coming out with shortages,” Ellis said. “It’s not sustainable from the point of view of nurses doing double shifts, and more importantly from that of patient care. Then, of course, the bottom line is to be efficient.

“We will continue to lobby the government to increase the bed capacity at the RHH. It is the major tertiary hospital. We have referrals and admissions from across the state for neurosurgery and cardiology. This really needs to be treated as a number-one priority.”

Adding to nurses’ frustration is the recent $300,000 office fit-out for the RHH’s senior management redevelopment team. While many would consider the figure modest considering the size of the project, it cuts into an already strapped budget. Ellis described the spending as “outrageous”.

Tasmanian Health Minister Michelle O’Byrne has asked her department to investigate whether efficiencies that have been made in the nurse workforce, including a reduction in reliance on agency staff, could have been the reason behind the spike in double shifts.

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