Leading ED doctor says no quick fix to current healthcare crisis as severe staffing issues cripple sector

A leading emergency department doctor believes more needs to be done to deal with the staffing shortages crippling the sector while also valuing and retaining current employees. 

It comes after a four-year-old boy died in Wellington Hospital's emergency department after being misdiagnosed and sent home. 

Over the next two days, his condition kept deteriorating so his parents took him back to the hospital where he was admitted straight away but died later that night. Early indications from the pathologist suggest he died from sepsis complications from tonsillitis.

The boy's death is one of several high-profile deaths in emergency rooms over the past few months. 

Dr Kate Allan, chair of the Australasian College of Emergency Medicine, told AM on Tuesday more needs to be done to train and value nurses in New Zealand.  

"People are burnt out, our nurses, particularly, are burnt out and there are better opportunities overseas so we are losing staff. This is really about working together to work out how we can value our workforce, how we can retain our workforce that we have," Dr Allan told AM fill-in co-host Patrick Gower. 

"There are so many people who contribute to our work in the emergency department, but we cannot do it without our nurses and we need ways to enable them to be there, to turn up to work, to want to come to work every day." 

Staffing shortages have been plaguing hospitals for much of this year as healthcare workers grappled to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and a particularly bad winter season. 

Earlier this month, Te Whatu Ora released data to Newshub showing some regions are short 50 nurses in emergency departments alone. In Canterbury, the data showed it was 12 ED nurses short.

In September, Newshub revealed every month thousands of people are choosing to leave emergency departments instead of waiting for treatment, whilst the number of patients waiting more than 24 hours in an emergency department is soaring. 

In August, patients were forced to wait up to seven hours in Christchurch Hospital's ED as it struggled with demand. 

Dr Allan said the staffing shortages are "incredibly frustrating" for patients, which can result in nurses receiving the brunt of their frustration.  

"It's incredibly challenging, we do what we can with the resources we have while we're there and it does absolutely put huge pressure on those that are there and are working," she said. 

"It's incredibly frustrating for our patients who are there to receive care and sometimes our staff bear the brunt of that and that can be really, really difficult as well."

She believes the current healthcare crisis is a "systemic issue" and has been a problem for a long period of time.

"This is absolutely a systemic issue that has been through successive Governments for many years and it has been building and COVID-19 was not the cause of it," she said. 

"It may have broken the back of it and exposed it, but it's definitely not the cause of it and it's not the ongoing problem. This has been in the system for a long time and it's just reached a real crux now."

Kate Allan said more needs to be done to train and value nurses in New Zealand.
Kate Allan said more needs to be done to train and value nurses in New Zealand. Photo credit: AM

Acting Prime Minister Grant Robertson told AM on Tuesday the Government has prioritised health funding but COVID-19 and staffing shortages put huge pressure on healthcare workers. 

"We've significantly lifted the amount of funding we've given to the health system overall, about a 40 percent increase since we've been in office. 

"We've increased the number of doctors and nurses we've got but there is a challenge here right now, which is that there is a global shortage in the health workforce. We're competing hard to get those people to come into New Zealand but there definitely is a strain within our health system when it comes to those staffing issues," Robertson told AM.

He said closed borders have also exacerbated staffing issues but that's starting to improve. 

"The issue we've got is right now, because the borders have been closed, we haven't been able to bring the number of people in that we wanted. It's picking up, there have been about 300 nurses, I think, come in from overseas since we started recruiting in July and there were about 500 visa applications there that are being processed.

Watch the full interview with Dr Kate Allan above.