The Government’s recent funding announcement for 500 extra nurses isn’t going to come close to fixing “decades of understaffing in the healthcare sector” or filling gaping staffing holes in Northland.
Those are the comments of healthcare advocates in reaction to Budget 2023, along with frustration over the lack of detail regarding how many nurses will be allocated to the regions and when they’ll be available.
The New Zealand Nurses Organisation (NZNO) says the country needs between 4000 and 5000 more nurses, including 300 in Northland.
Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall recently promised $63 million for 500 extra nurses nationwide.
However, Te Whatu Ora Health NZ can’t say where the nurses will be deployed or when they’ll be available for work.
NZNO president Anne Daniels said the 500 nurses were “absolutely welcomed”.
“But it’s not going to help if it’s one lot of 500 nurses when we need 700 a year over the next 10 years,” she said.
“Te Whatu Ora have said we need 700 extra nurses per year until 2030 to get over the current nurse shortage.
“In the bigger scheme of things, this is not going to make a hell of a lot of difference except to the person they’re working beside.”
Daniels, an emergency department nurse, said the Budget announcement raised lots of questions which need to be addressed, including recruitment and retention issues.
“Where are they going to come from and where will they go?
“Will they go into rural, mental health, specific places around the country, or emergency departments, and will they be registered nurses or midwives?
“What incentives will there be to go to areas of greater demand?
“There’s so much detail we’re not being told here.
“Instead of putting a Band-Aid over it, we need to have a proper plan that’s developed by the biggest union of nurses in New Zealand.
“Te Whatu Ora and the Minister of Health have not discussed that with us.”
Whangārei emergency medicine consultant Dr Gary Payinda said it was “fantastic” New Zealand was getting more nurses.
But “we have a long way to go” to fix the nationwide shortage, he said.
“We’re looking at having to undo literally decades of understaffing in the healthcare sector.
“It obviously needs to go further than that. Northland could absorb those 500 nurses by itself.
“Expand that out and we can see the scope of the problem.”
Healthcare advocates say more is needed to be done to hire and retain nurses in Northland when the current workforce is so stretched.
Dozens of nurses who belong to the NZNO organised rallies throughout the country in April to call on political parties to have policies that address the crisis.
In Northland, nurses who work for Te Whatu Ora, aged care, GP practices, Māori and iwi, and Plunket turned out to demand better pay and conditions.
Payinda said there is currently “a lot of attrition” among nursing staff.
“Especially senior nurses who are choosing to leave to find less onerous jobs with better pay, or retire earlier than planned”, he said.
“Nurses are a resilient bunch, but everyone has their breaking point.
“We’ve got to make a healthcare system that’s sustainable for staff and patients. Right now, we clearly do not have that.”
Payinda said the nursing and GP shortages - which were “tragic” - were “not a problem of this year, or since Covid, or since Labour got in”.
“This is a problem that’s been growing in severity for many years.”
A Te Whatu Ora spokeswoman said the funding for more nurses would be “a significant boost for our workforce”.
However, “the specifics of where these additional nurses will work is yet to be determined”, she said.
“Te Whatu Ora is focused on growing our pipeline of domestic nurses, attracting nurses from overseas to come work in New Zealand, and on retaining the hard-working nurses who already work in our health system.”
The spokeswoman said there are several initiatives underway to help grow the workforce, including targeted recruitment campaigns, funding to support nurses to return to the workforce and gain registration, and financial support for Internationally Qualified Nurses to become New Zealand registered.
Daniels said nearly a third of nursing students exit their degree programmes before completion, citing burnout and financial hardship.
The $63m for 500 nurses “would have been better served by supporting our students to complete their education”, she said.
“Australia offers full scholarships to nurse students to provide the support they need to complete.”
There was also a lack of incentives for nurses to stay in New Zealand especially “when you can have a $20,000 sign-on bonus for moving to Queensland”.
“They [Australia] have a much higher rate of pay and better conditions. They also have nurse-to-patient ratio legislation which keep the workloads safe.
“There’s none of that in our New Zealand context.”
Daniels said the NZNO petition advocating to fix the nursing shortage and ensure better patient care, which has more than 20,000 signatures, would be used to encourage health officials to take action, particularly in getting “pay equity, pay parity and earn-as-you-learn get over the line right now”.