We’re at a tipping point – February 2010

When our hospitals become unsafe, our responsibility is to act.

We have to read the signs. The mercury is rising, the environment is combustible and the warning signs are saying ‘danger’. I’m not talking bushfires. I’m talking about the state of our public hospitals.

The end of 2009 saw nurses and communities combine through-out the North Coast AHS to say ‘enough is enough’ to the savage staffing cuts they believe imperil the safety of patients and nurses (see p12).

This ‘uprising’ started at Lismore Base, Port Macquarie, Coffs Harbour and Tweeds Heads Hospitals as nurses took to the streets against budget cuts that have stripped back community health services and clogged up the EDs in these hospitals. Staffing numbers have been slashed and nursing leadership lost.

At Kempsey hospital nurses have run a protracted and proactive campaign to win more staff, with rallies held (and more to come) to make their point.

The State Government and NSW Health have repeatedly said no frontline nursing positions will be lost in our public hospitals. Despite this, the facts on the ground paint a completely different picture.
This unconscionable trend to scale back nursing positions, usually by stealth, is putting the safety of patients and nurses at risk.

When our hospitals become unsafe, our responsibility is to act. I applaud these nurses for sticking up for the health system they are so obviously committed to.
These issues and problems are widespread. In fact they are systemic.

Comprehensive research we have conducted for this year’s pay and conditions campaign in the public health system confirms this (see p16).

The results of this research are scary.
The demands on nurses are getting worse, with increased workloads, staff shortages and rising patient acuity. There is more aggression from patients and their families. Nurses voiced concerns about how these factors impacted on patient safety and the safety of nursing staff. Many nurses say patients are ‘falling through the gaps’ because nurses are too stretched to deal with patient needs.

These problems won’t fix themselves. The people who should be taking responsibility won’t. The State Government is in total disarray. The state opposition’s health policies are about a return to the past. The area health services are completely focussed on squaring their ledgers. The media is more interested in using health as a political football rather than facilitating a sober debate that will lead to constructive solutions.

When it comes to health, these loci of power have proved to be impotent, if not destructive.
If nurses don’t take the lead to act, who will?

Nurses have been brave and effective as they defend our health system at a local level.
But the problem is systemic and we have to defend the system as a whole. The public health system pay and conditions campaign will be an opportunity to make our voice heard and to take action. We will need to be thoughtful, organised and disciplined. Every nurse will have to take part.
But if we don’t take advantage of the once-every-few-years’ opportunity that this campaign will give us, then when will we?

We are at a tipping point and things cannot be allowed to go on as they are.