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.
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.
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.
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.
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.