Hawke’s Bay DHB Chief Nursing Officer Karyn Bousfield-Black with the Assessment, Treatment and Rehabilitation (AT&R) team at the nurses’ station in AT&R at Hawke’s Bay Fallen Soldier’s Memorial Hospital

International Nurses Day is celebrated 12 May. 

Nursing is the largest group of health professionals in the country, with 62,342 people working as enrolled nurses, registered nurses and nurse practitioners as at March 2021. Most work for the DHBs, but some 42% work in aged care, primary care, for iwi providers or private hospitals.

And still, there are roughly 3,500 nursing vacancies nationally across the health sector.

Last October, the NZ Nurses Organisation (NZNO) warned: “Aotearoa New Zealand is dangerously underprepared for what seems an inevitable tsunami of community COVID cases that could completely break our health system, and that nurses must be part all proposed solutions… Nurses are a highly skilled workforce and have risen to ever-increasing demands, but they are already burnt out and seriously understaffed. Meanwhile our health system is not adequate to meet the demands of Covid, which is only just beginning to have an impact.”

Here in Hawke’s Bay the nursing situation is a mixed bag.

On the one hand, our nurses – like other health care workers – have risen spectacularly to the huge addition burden Covid has placed on them, at a time when staffing shortages and other conditions have already been stressful.

Karyn Bousfield-Black, Chief Nursing Officer at the DHB, says, “These last two years have reconfirmed why this is the profession for me, and how lucky I am to be working with such an amazing group of professionals.”

That’s great in spirit and it’s wonderful to see those (hopefully) smiling masked faces in the photo supplied above.

However, unacceptable conditions around safe staffing persist at the DHB and are still a matter of dispute between nurses and management. When a formal complaint was initially filed last September, the issues included: “patients being ‘housed’ in inappropriate or hazardous places such as corridors; dangerous delays in triage and assessment; seriously unsafe and inadequate staffing levels; nurses too overworked to take meal and other breaks; patients missing out on essential care; increased risk of error; and staff feeling unsafe and anxious while at work.”

NZNO said: “What we have here is a serious or sentinel event just waiting to happen, resulting in avoidable patient death and the potential end to nursing careers.”

Nationally, pay for nurses has been significantly increased recently, although disagreement around promised back pay adjustment is now subject of a complaint to the Employment Relations Authority.

And even with pay increases, NZ nurses earn less than their colleagues abroad, creating incentive to leave … making that 3500 position gap that much harder to fill.

For example, the starting rate for an enrolled nurse in Australia is, on average, the equivalent of NZ$62,789, nearly $9,000 more than in New Zealand. They max out at around NZ$73,930 – almost $17,000 more than in NZ. Registered nurses and midwives in Australia start out on average at NZ$71,260 – more than many with a few years’ experience here get.

So as we applaud our nurses – and the expanding role they play in the health system – we need also to support policies and funding that will ensure safe, healthful working environments for them. Our own health care might depend on them one day!

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