20 May 2022

ACT prepares for winter of discontent: flu on the rise, under-pressure health staff consider quitting

| Lottie Twyford
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Canberra hospital

It was announced earlier this week that the elective surgeries would need to be postponed at the Territory’s hospitals. Photo: Region Media.

As winter rolls in and brings with it sustained COVID-19 cases along with an increase in respiratory illnesses like influenza, pressure is mounting on the Territory’s health system and its already-strained healthcare workforce.

New documents show some staff members are considering leaving the system after two years of pandemic stress.

Earlier this week, Minister for Health Rachel Stephen-Smith confirmed elective surgeries would need to be cancelled throughout winter as the system was forced to cope with COVID and non-COVID patients.

She said it was unclear how long this would last but described it as necessary to allow emergency surgeries to proceed.

Ms Stephen-Smith said there were no issues with the physical capacity of the hospital, only with staff numbers.

“We’ve actually had to occasionally close some theatres at Canberra Hospital because we didn’t have the staff to support that throughput in our theatres,” she explained.

ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith.

Minister for Health Rachel Stephen-Smith said some elective surgery would need to be cancelled due to workforce pressures. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Documents released under Freedom of Information laws show the extent of this pressure on the workforce, with one in eight (13 per cent) staff in the public system considering quitting in the next two years, according to a staff culture survey conducted late last year.

Around 50 per cent of CHS staff were surveyed.

Its results show only 39 per cent of staff believed their workload was fair and equitable – compared to 43 per cent in 2019 – and only 37 per cent believed their achievements were recognised.

The latter result was on par with 2019 results.

Less than half (45 per cent) of CHS staff believed the organisation provided them with good career opportunities.

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Canberra Health Services’ workforce plan showed the turnover for nursing and midwifery had increased over the past year. COVID-19 burnout was identified as a factor likely to increase the rate at which people were leaving the profession.

The plan also found issues with the skill mix, particularly in midwifery, neonatal intensive care and mental health nursing.

In health care settings, ‘skill mix’ refers to the proportions of different levels of nurses, such as registered nurses, enrolled nurses and nursing assistants.

Leanne Castley

Opposition spokesperson for health Leanne Castley said the ACT health system is “bleeding staff”. Photo: Region Media.

Opposition spokesperson for health Leanne Castley described the report as a “wake-up call” for the ACT Government.

“Our health system is bleeding staff,” she said.

“Nurses feel undervalued and are leaving in droves … they feel like they aren’t recognised. No wonder Canberra has the worst emergency department and elective surgery wait times in the country.”

Ms Castley said it’s important to find out what is going on and why staff feel the way they do.

“I would love to know what the Minister [for Health] is doing to make sure she keeps her staff,” she said.

The Canberra Liberals MLA said she was disappointed to hear elective surgeries would need to be cancelled.

“My heart goes out to the people that are needing those surgeries,” she said.

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According to the latest ACT Health influenza surveillance report, there have been 134 cases of flu reported across the Territory this year. Of these, 97 cases were reported in the fortnight to 1 May, double the previous week.

For the last two years, the ACT has avoided large scale influenza outbreaks as restrictions on the country’s international borders kept it out.

In 2019, the Territory experienced a nightmare flu season with almost 4000 cases reported to ACT Health.

As of Thursday, 19 May, a record 82 people were hospitalised with COVID-19.

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The situation is worse. There are many more unreported flu cases in the community because people will suffer at home without bothering to report themselves. They won’t report because ACT hospitals have the longest wait times in the country, they don’t want to wait hours in emergency, they are told nurses can’t cope and are leaving. So people will just ride it out with medicine from chemists. Plenty of money is allocated to health services, but the main beneficiaries are over paid specialists who ensure they soak up funding.

The ACT Health system is terrible, all thanks to the shocking ACT Labor/greens government. 20 Years of labor/greens in government running Canberra, and they just don’t care at all as they are too busy with their ridiculous identity politics agendas and other trivial things, instead of focusing on the very important issues like health and education. But YOU voted for them Canberra (not me), so those who voted for them should not complain at all. YOU can enjoy your 7 hour wait in emergency as that’s what YOU voted for.

The Plumbing & Electrical Doctor11:06 am 25 May 22

hoping the ACT preparation can dramatically answer all the problems that arises

ACT has had labor government for over 20 years with no break. Who’s fault is the health system? Must be a liberal issue lol

Another reason for opposing lockdowns and border closures was that the harm from the predicted rebound infections, when flu and other viruses came back, would be extreme. Guess we’re about to find out who was right.

Linda Seaniger2:31 pm 20 May 22

It’s obvious if you simulate one part of the economy (construction) and under value / over work another (medical) you have a problem. Our pollies lack intelligence we need to train more people. Perhaps pay or respect them more, offer incentives or a bond arrangement for tuition fees and train them NOW or offer apprenticeships.

Hello Linda,
I agree with your thoughts about our local ACT pollies.

There is often a call for more pay for staff who are under pressure, such as nurses, teachers and so on, however, mostly when people leave jobs, it’s NOT about their pay. It’s about feeling overworked and not appreciated.

Coming into winter, It might be appropriate to consider some modest tightening of restrictions to slow the rate of Covid and Flu infections.

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