Staff and patient safety is being put “at risk” because of a critical lack of mental health staff at Shellharbour Hospital, according to the NSW nursing union.
- Shellharbour Hospital closes five beds at its acute mental health unit due to staff shortages
- The union representing nurses says the unit will continue to struggle to attract new staff unless they address safety concerns
- Shellharbour MP Anna Watson says she will raise the issues with the NSW Health Minister
The Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District (ISLHD) confirmed it has been forced to close five beds at the hospital’s acute Eloura Mental Health Unit because of the staffing shortage.
The ISLHD chief executive Margot Mains said the unit has struggled to attract new staff and operations will be scaled back in the interest of employee and patient safety.
“It’s really important for patient and staff safety that we manage the number of beds we can with the staff we have,” Ms Mains said.
“We believe this is the best answer for this period of time but are looking to recruit more staff into the unit.”
In a statement to the ABC Caroline Langston, the health district’s executive director of mental health, said the reconfiguration of the Eloura Unit was temporary.
She said the ISHLD was recruiting staff for the mental health service but that “highly skilled workforce is in short supply”.
“When the additional staff have been recruited, the unit will return to its original configuration.”
Brett Holmes, the national secretary of the NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association (NSWNMA) said the lack of trained medical staff at the facility unit was deeply concerning.
“If they can’t recruit sufficient staff then they need to manage the level of service that they can provide otherwise they’re putting the lives of patients and their staff at risk.
“Staff trying to manage severely unwell patients without adequate numbers of staff puts everyone at risk.
“The extraordinarily high number of vacancies and unfilled positions has caused the district to reduce the numbers of beds that are open in acute units.”
High rates of restraint, isolation
The Eloura Unit provides care for “high-risk” patients with complex mental health issues and the ward has a history of violence incidents.
The Bureau of Health Information’s (BHI) quarterly report revealed that Shellharbour Hospital has the third highest rate of seclusion and isolation of mental health patients in the state — 11.4 seclusions per 1,000 bed days — behind Broken Hill and Concord hospitals.
The rate is more than double NSW Health’s target rate of 5.1 seclusions per 1,000 bed days, per hospital.
Between April and June this year, patients were put in seclusion on 38 occasions for about eight hours each time.
Isolating patients can be a practice used to prevent patients from physically harming themselves and others.
Mr Holmes said for a facility with such a history of violent incidents, a shortage of staff was very dangerous.
“There needs to be adequate numbers of staff to intervene in critical situations and that’s a minimum of six people needed to restrain someone who’s physically violent towards themselves or others,” he said.
We know that the staffing inside the acute mental health unit has at times fallen short of those numbers.
“That puts our members at risk when they’re trying to intervene when a patient is at risk of hurting themselves or others.”
Increase in worker’s comp
The nurses’ union said an increase in worker’s compensation claims in the health service district for the 2018-19 financial year indicated that staff were experiencing more physical and psychological injuries at work.
In its Health Services Plan for the next 10 years, the ISLHD has forecast a 15 per cent increase in worker’s compensation claims across the local health district.
“The level of worker’s compensation is a reflection of what is happening in the work place,” the union’s Brett Holmes said.
“There needs to be a close look at what’s causing the physical and psychological injuries and what can be done by the district to ensure they’re delivering a safe work place.”
He the figures showed staff’s increased exposure to violence in the workplace.
“We’ve seen an increase over the years of violence and aggression against staff that has both an immediate and an accumulative impact on people’s health.”
Health minister called to act
The Member for Shellharbour, Anna Watson, said she would raise the issues of staff and patient safety with the NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard.
“The violent incidents at Shellharbour Hospital are unacceptable.
“Whether it’s a patient or a staff member we need to ensure everybody’s safety and the only way to do that is to ensure we have an adequate number of people staffing and providing security for these facilities.”
But the NSW Labor MP said the problems at the facility were indicative of a wider statewide issue.
“Issues around mental health treatment are becoming increasingly prevalent in communities across NSW.
“If we can’t provide adequate security and protections for both patients and the staff then we’re absolutely getting it wrong and it needs to be addressed.”
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