Nurse staffing figures in New Zealand hospitals 'genuinely alarming', New Zealand Nurses Organisation warns

New figures released under the Official Information Act have revealed the "genuinely alarming" staffing crisis for nurses in New Zealand hospitals, the New Zealand Nurses Organisation (NZNO) is warning. 

For the 2023 calendar year, figures from 540 public health wards show that on average more than a quarter (26 percent) of nursing shifts were below target staffing numbers. 

Worse, the figures revealed some specific wards operated below safe staffing levels nearly all the time. 

NZNO chief executive Paul Goulter said of particular concern was "shifts below target" at wards for the treatment of children, cancer (oncology), surgical needs, women's health and mental health. 

Shifts below target indicate a heightened level of risk for patient safety, patient outcomes and nursing workforce safety, he added. Patient mortality also increases with exposure to increased numbers of shifts below target.

"More than half of the country's children's wards are understaffed at least 20 percent of the time. The neonatal intensive care ward at Waipapa Christchurch Hospital (865 shifts below target) was understaffed for nearly 80 percent of all shifts last year," Goulter said. 

"Five out of eight adult inpatient oncology wards were understaffed 20 percent of the time or more, with the most understaffed being Waikato Hospital Ward M05 (638 shifts below target). This fell below the rate of understaffing of Starship Hospital's children's cancer Ward 27B, which reported 791 shifts below target or nearly three quarters of all shifts in 2023. 

"Fifty-six percent of surgical wards are understaffed 20 percent of the time or more, with the most understaffed being Waikato Hospital's M08 Neurosurgery Ward (735 shifts below target). 

"Almost half of women's health wards are understaffed 20 percent of the time or more, with the most understaffed with Middlemore Hospital accounting for five of the six highest shifts below target reports." 

But mental health wards report the most acute levels of understaffing.  

Figures showed three wards reported more than 1000 shifts below target, with the Mason Clinic's Tane Whakapiripiri ward in Waitematā being understaffed almost all (99.45 percent) of the time - meaning only six shifts were safely staffed there last year. 

'Impoverished health system' 

"We have an impoverished health system that continues to be eroded by the Coalition Government's spending restraints and frontline service cuts," Goulter said. 

"Te Whatu Ora [Health NZ] staffing data from 2023 reveals just how dire the situation has become and it's no surprise nurses are leaving faster than they can be replaced." 

Goulter said the nurse staffing crisis remained a daily reality in New Zealand, with nurses continuing to leave because of burnout and concerns about pay and their health and safety at work. 

He said this was the result of a failure to properly fund health, adding the data showed Aotearoa cannot afford any further service or funding cuts. 

"Budget 2024 will be released at the end of the month and may be the Coalition Government's last chance to show they care about health and to address the staffing problem by funding proper patient care for our loved ones and whānau into the future." 

It comes as nurses at more than 20 locations across Aotearoa will be holding public rallies on May 9, picketing and speaking about safe staffing issues and solutions such as legally mandated nurse-to-patient ratios. 

In a statement to Newshub, Health Minister Shane Reti acknowledged the sector, in particular the workforce, was "under pressure".

"Our highly skilled, hard-working nurses are a valued part of our health workforce," Dr Reti said.

"I understand that the data referred to is the year to December 2023. Since coming into power, this Coalition Government has made expanding our workforce a priority."

Dr Reti said progress had already been made to recruit more nurses.

"In the year to December 2023, Health New Zealand added almost 2500 nurses to our workforce.

"I acknowledge though that there are still gaps, such as emergency medicine and mental health. Health New Zealand continues to recruit in these critical areas and look at ways we can build our own home-grown, culturally competent nursing workforce. 

"As has already been signalled, our Government has ensured that health and other critical frontline services will face an overall funding uplift in our Budget."

The Budget will be announced on May 30.