NZSA supports declaring health workforce emergency and urgent Government action

20 March 2022
2.7 Min Read

NZSA supports declaring health workforce emergency and urgent Government actionMain Image

The New Zealand Society of Anaesthetists (NZSA) supports the call of other health organisations, including the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, for the Government to declare a health workforce emergency and take urgent action as New Zealand braces for a major omicron outbreak. NZSA President Dr Sheila Hart, who works at Wellington Hospital, says that in addition to the expected surge of patients contracting omicron a high proportion of health workers will also become ill with omicron and need to take leave and self-isolate. “Our health system is already over stretched and experiencing severe health workforce shortages – doctors, nurses, midwives and allied health workers – so a big jump in staff absences will exacerbate the challenge of meeting the healthcare requirements for patients.” Dr Hart says there is widespread anxiety among her colleagues and others she has spoken to in the health workforce. “There’s also real frustration that there isn’t a highly visible national heath workforce plan to enable the health system to respond to the COVID pandemic.”

Dr Hart says that health workforce shortages and the wellbeing of staff are longstanding issues. “As a country we haven’t invested in our health workforce or in long-term, strategic workforce planning despite years of knowing the shortages we face. There’s been a woeful lack of leadership from successive Governments and we’re now at crisis point with omicron modelling forecasting high numbers of cases across New Zealand.”

“Rosters are already stretched to capacity. There are massive delays in first specialist appointments, diagnostics, and treatment. Omicron has reinforced how unsustainable our country’s staffing shortages are.”

The situation in Australia, with thousands of healthcare workers taking sick leave has magnified concerns among the New Zealand healthcare workforce that New Zealand will face a similar scenario.

While the Government has said advanced planning is in place to help hospitals cope with anticipated omicron cases, Dr Hart says that information sharing around planning has been poor.

“This reflects a wider issue which the NZSA has urged the Government to address as part of its health system reforms, which is that clinicians must have meaningful input in planning health services. They are at the coal face of patient care and best placed to lead this work.”

Emergency Departments (EDs) will be at the frontline of an acute Omicron outbreak and are already at breaking point due to staff shortages and an upsurge of patients presenting to EDs including those unable to be seen by general practice or after hours.

“The escalating calls from our ED colleagues about the perilous state of their service and concerns about how they can care adequately for patients presenting to them reinforces how serious the situation has become.”

Dr Hart says the NZSA is calling on the Government to urgently prioritise staff retention and recruitment and to work with clinical leaders at both hospital and community levels. “We need to address sustainable working conditions, clinician patient ratios, and to fast-track and simplify registration, residency, and immigration pathways to boost the numbers of foreign-trained healthcare workers.”

“However, long-term workforce planning to train enough doctors, nurses, and allied health workers in New Zealand is essential. We also need adequate resourcing and support to look after our patients and the wellbeing of our health workforce. The two are inextricably linked and we need urgent action.”