Fears for safety of mothers, babies amid maternity ward staff shortage

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Staffing levels in Victoria’s maternity services have been left so depleted by COVID-19 testing and vaccination efforts, midwives fear for the safety of mothers and babies.

Midwives and nurses are regularly required to work overtime, double shifts and extra shifts due to statewide staff shortages.

The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation said members feared the situation has become so bad it posed safety concerns.

Healthcare sources say COVID-19 testing and vaccination efforts have depleted the casual workforce.Credit:Bloomberg

Healthcare sources have told The Age hospitals have been unable to get casual workers as the vast majority have taken up work on the more lucrative COVID-19 testing and vaccination programs.

The Nursing and Midwifery Federation, along with Victoria’s healthcare safety watchdog Safer Care Victoria and maternity services, have been meeting with the Department of Health to address the system strain.

A healthcare source who spoke to The Age on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing their job said they had been regularly asked to work extra shifts since the coronavirus pandemic took hold last March.

While some hospitals – such as the Joan Kirner Women’s and Children’s at Sunshine Hospital – have experienced a baby boom that has put pressure on staff, the source said hospitals with relatively stable birthing numbers had also felt intense pressure.

Most hospitals have a bank of casual staff they draw on when the permanent workforce is on leave, but sources said there had been a hole in the availability of casual nurses and midwives.

“The pay in [COVID-19] swabbing and recently vaccinating is better and therefore our catchment of bank staff has essentially been zero,” the source said. “I haven’t heard of a bank staff working in my hospital since last year, which essentially makes it fall onto the permanent, rotating core staff to pick up extra shifts and puts the pressure on them.

“Some hospitals have had their directors work in-charge shifts because there was no other staff member available to cover that shift.”

The Nursing and Midwifery Federation has warned the pressure on healthcare workers, who have reported feeling fatigued because of their demanding workload over the past year, is likely to intensify throughout 2021.

“Midwives and nurses have clearly identified that the challenges are such that they pose clear concern for the delivery of safe and quality care, and importantly women, babies and families’ experiences,” the union wrote in a letter to its members that was obtained by The Age.

“[The federation], along with maternity services and [Safer Care Victoria], has escalated to the [Department of Health] the crisis point that many services are facing, and while the demand concerns are varied across the state it is clear that workforce is a consistent theme.”

In a statement, The Royal Women’s Hospital said there was anecdotal evidence that bank staff had chosen to work at COVID-19 testing and vaccination hubs, depleting the number of casual staff available and limiting how the hospital was able to staff its maternity services.

The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation’s Lisa Fitzpatrick at a rally with Premier Daniel Andrews in 2018.Credit:Justin McManus

The hospital is addressing the staffing shortage by bolstering its gradual nursing and midwifery intake, offering work contracts to casual staff and increasing working flexibility to workers juggling other commitments.

“The Women’s is making every effort to address workforce challenges in maternity services,” said Lisa Lynch, the hospital’s chief operating officer.

Union secretary Lisa Fitzpatrick said the Department of Health had clearly understood the significance of the issues raised and acknowledged the need to begin implementing both short- and long-term strategies as part of a statewide, centralised approach.

The union has urged the department to overhaul postnatal night duty patient-to-nurse ratios to match that of the morning and afternoon shifts and hire dedicated nurses and midwives to assist with the care of newborns.

A Department of Health spokesman said the government had also launched a campaign to recruit more healthcare workers to be part of the vaccination program.

“Eligible students and recently retired nurses have been targeted to join the program – this will provide Victoria the surge capacity to quickly roll out the COVID-19 vaccination and reduce demand on our existing workforce,” he said.

Northern Health and Austin Health were contacted for comment. Western Health declined to comment.

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