Student nurses, union issue urgent call to Government to drop financial barriers

The nurses union is calling on the Government to drop financial barriers for nursing students.

It wants solutions like free training and payment for work placements, to stop more student nurses from dropping out.

The union says it's urgent as the healthcare sector's crying out for more nurses.

Nursing students at Whitireia Weltec in Porirua are eager to help relieve the pressure on the healthcare sector. Alana Wijnstock is in her second year of a Bachelor of Nursing Maori.

"We're coming, we want to help, we're excited."

But before they can graduate and help - nursing students need to complete at least 1100 hours of clinical practice.

It's all unpaid which Wijnstock says is often a huge barrier.

"If we can pay builders for apprentices, why do we not pay our student nurses in the same way?" 

Bachelor of Nursing Pacific student Moe Onosaio told Newshub that she and some of her classmates have families and jobs, and if the placements were paid they wouldn't have to juggle work as well.

"That'll help keep people in class, keep people in school - we've had people drop out for that reason."

Like former nursing student Veronica Hall, who had to work during unpaid placements to support her family.

"I withdrew from the course due to working constantly and not having any time for study."

Hall is one of many. A joint-DHB report found nearly a third of nursing students drop out.   

"Financially it was really straining. When you know you're not getting paid it can be quite draining and exhausting."

A petition to pay student nurses on placements has reached almost 13,000 signatures and NZ Nurses Organisation president Anne Daniels said many students are struggling.

"They can't pay their power bills, they can not put food on the table, they can't pay for care of their children. It's a huge barrier."

And with more than 4000 nurses needed nationwide, the union wants urgent Government action.

"We need to make it easier, we need a whole lot more nurses. So first of all we'd like free fees for education, and we'd like cost to be paid for placements," said Daniels.

Health Minister Andrew Little told Newshub fees are unlikely to be dropped - but he is looking at more support for placements.

"I know the issue, and solutions to them are being considered. When I'm ready we'll make some announcements about that."

For students like Wijnstock, even a small amount would make a big difference. 

"I'd be happy if they gave me $10 a day, I'd be like 'yus petrol money!'" she said.

Figures from the Nursing Council show the number of new registered nurses has only grown by 100 in the past four years. 

From 2018 to 2019 there were 1740 new domestic nurses registered, while in 2020 to 2021 there were 1865.

But even if more students could be encouraged to study - they still need on-the-job training.

Because although some education providers, like Whitireia in Porirua, have the capacity to double student numbers, there aren't enough placements available in the healthcare sector, especially when it's under so much pressure. 

"You need those experienced registered nurses to provide what we call direction and delegation, to actually keep those students safe on placement," Daniels told Newshub.

That could include former nurses returning to the job. Those nurses can tap into a $1 million fund to re-train, but the union worries it's not enough. 

"We're certainly looking at continuing that, and hopefully expanding that as well," Little said. 

One of many conversations the sector is desperate to have with the Minister, because in a healthcare crisis every penny and every nurse counts.