21 February 2023

More than 300 new recruits join Canberra's healthcare workforce but 'chronic shortage' remains

| James Coleman
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Canberra nurses

Two new recruits, ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith and head nurse Amanda. Photo: ACT Government.

An overwhelmed local health system has scored an injection of fresh workers, but the union says it’s nothing more than a band-aid for an ongoing “chronic shortage” of senior and junior medical staff.

Canberra Health Services (CHS), which manages all of the Territory’s public health hospitals, clinics and other healthcare centres, has welcomed more than 100 new registered and enrolled nurses this month.

The recent graduates are also joined by 95 ‘junior medical officers’ (JMOs), who either began their first year or intern year of supervised training for general medical registration.

On top of that, around 130 JMOs have also been transferred from other hospitals and programs to the ACT to continue their training as residents and registrars.

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Minister for Health Rachel Stephen-Smith said the 300-plus members have already started across all areas, including operating theatres, acute wards, the emergency department, mental health, rehabilitation, and women, youth and children’s services.

“I know our newest health professionals are passionate about providing high-quality, evidence-based treatment and care to our community.”

Ms Stephen-Smith promised “support and guidance” for the new recruits as each starts on a “long and successful health career”.

“I welcome every new staff member and thank them for the contribution they will make in the years to come.”

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In September 2022, a report by the ACT branch of the Australian Salaried Medical Officers Federation (ASMOF) into the Canberra Hospital found staff were “fatigued … unsupported, undervalued and did not feel they were sufficiently skilled to take on duties allocated to them”.

The union warned of a “very real and immediate threat” of psychosocial injury to staff, with members reporting extreme stress to the point of seeking medical assistance or accessing personal leave.

CHS Medical Services executive director Grant Howard said seeing the new recruits in action during their first few weeks on the floor was exciting.

“The 95 JMOs were selected from over 200 applicants for the highly competitive internship program,” he said.

“Congratulations on joining our team. We look forward to continuing to provide the exceptional medical training needed to kickstart your careers,” he said.

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Nursing, Midwifery and Patient Support Services executive director Kellie Lang said the graduate nurses are joining an “experienced and hardworking team, who are looking forward to passing on their years of knowledge and expertise”.

“It’s exciting seeing the next generation coming through and choosing a fulfilling career in nursing.”

But ASMOF still isn’t sold.

ACT Branch CEO Steve Ross said while “it’s good to see new faces come in”, the real question remains: “Where are the vacancies?”

“Every year, there is an intake of new medical staff, so these numbers are not unusual,” he said.

“For diverse reasons, over the year, some stay, some move, some have a change in circumstances, so the announcement doesn’t address the chronic ongoing shortages, nor the ACT’s disadvantage to other jurisdictions when it comes to attracting medical staff.”

Mr Ross said the Canberra Hospital is still short of registrars and doctors-in-training across several divisions, with others lacking specialists and consultants.

“They have to deal with workload issues and make some positive steps to address the issues raised by medical practitioners, which are multiple. We don’t see evidence yet that there have been systemic improvements in the workloads and staffing shortages.”

outside view of Canberra hospital emergency department

Canberra Hospital is still suffering staff issues, according to the union. Photo: File.

Of the 87 new registered nurses to join CHS this month, 39 completed their studies at the University of Canberra (UC). Of the 95 JMOs in the CHS internship program, nearly two-thirds completed their studies at the Australian National University (ANU), with 65 interns starting their rotation at the Canberra Hospital, 22 at Calvary Public Hospital in Bruce, and eight at smaller regional hospitals in NSW.

UC Faculty of Health executive dean Professor Michelle Lincoln said the partnership with CHS “enables students to gain the practical skills and experience they need to become health care professionals”.

“We’re so proud to see so many of them go on to support the community.”

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Earlier this week, CHS was criticised for entering into a $800,000 contract with a Melbourne-based design studio to refresh the department’s brand.

A spokesperson told Region that – among new signs and uniforms – this included an “employee service offer to highlight the benefits of working for CHS, recruitment materials and campaigns to support recruiting and retaining the best healthcare talent”.

“To attract the best healthcare professionals, it’s important that CHS has a strong brand identity to position ourselves as an employer of choice.”

The opposition dubbed it “PR spin” and accused the government of denying Canberra “a functioning health system” for years.

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