Hospital crisis: Nurses threaten walkout over bed shortage
By JENNY DENNIS
May 31, 2004
A CRITICAL bed shortage at Wollongong Hospital has forced Illawarra Health into damage control.
Chief executive officer Liz Gale will hold crisis talks today in the wake of a threatened walkout by nursing staff.
Emergency doctors also are reported to be deeply distressed by the bed situation.
Today's meeting is in direct response to an email to key personnel from the area's director of emergency, Andrew Bezzina, highlighting the intense pressure under which emergency department staff have been working in recent weeks. It's believed Dr Bezzina said he and his staff had "had enough".
Last week, a deputation of emergency nurses told the emergency department's senior nurse unit manager they, too, were no longer prepared to work under the conditions that exist at the hospital.
The Mercury has also had a number of calls from ambulance officers frustrated by the lack of beds.
They report spending as long as four hours waiting to transfer patients from their ambulance stretchers to a hospital bed, with the resulting gridlock forcing as many as eight ambulances at a time off the road.
A source within Wollongong Hospital has revealed former chief executive officer Jon Blackwell estimated last year that the hospital needed an extra 100 beds.
Mr Blackwell worked out the figure by comparing Illawarra Health's beds per population with the number available at Central Coast Area Health Service, where he worked as CEO before briefly taking on the top job at Illawarra Health.
In his time in the Illawarra he secured a further 33 beds for Wollongong Hospital, but the overall shortage continues to bite and is expected to worsen this winter.
A recent announcement that 12 extra beds would open in late June to cope with the winter rush would not be enough to relieve the pressure, the hospital source said.
The Mercury reported in February patients were waiting in corridors for up to 45 hours while two wards remained empty.
Dr Gale responded then by saying one of the empty wards was awaiting the removal of asbestos, and the other, which was being used to house nuclear medicine, would be renovated in July.
She said yesterday one of these wards was still closed, awaiting a complete refurbishment. The other was not being used as a ward. It was now the hospital's transit lounge, where patients awaiting discharge or transfer are held.
May had been a busy month in the emergency department, resulting in a peak demand which usually did not start until June or July, the health boss said.
She put this down to an increase in gastroenteritis, a nursing home bed shortage, high levels of trauma resulting in a 20 per cent increase in surgery, the colder weather, and a reduction in bulk billing by general practitioners.
Admissions to Wollongong Hospital's emergency department were up 16 per cent on last year and there had been a nine per cent increase in admissions by ambulance.
Dr Gale does not believe last month's decision to have ambulances bypass Bulli Hospital was having any effect on Wollongong Hospital.
Strategies to improve patient flow would reduce the pressure on emergency department and in-patient beds, and a new position of workload support manager had been created to assist emergency nurses. She said the new recruit was due to start in a week.