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Operating Theatre Nurses

MR KAINE: I have a question for the Chief Minister and Minister for Health and Community Care. Chief Minister, I am told that there is some continuing concern about an apparent shortage of operating theatre nurses in our hospital system. Is there any justification for that concern and, if so, what is the Government doing to eliminate the problem?

MRS CARNELL: Throughout Australia, and particularly at Woden Valley Hospital, there is an ongoing shortage of experienced operating room nurses, as Mr Connolly and Mr Berry would know, and those with an interest in working in operating theatres. During July and August this year, a shortage of staff and abnormally high levels of winter sick leave have meant that, where there are normally eight operating sessions morning and afternoon at Woden, there have been only enough personnel for five to seven sessions. This, of course, has the potential to disrupt elective surgery bookings, with a resulting impact upon waiting lists and waiting times. It should be noted that backfilling to accommodate absenteeism in the winter months is also difficult, as there is a limited pool of nurses with operating room skills. Sick leave in this area during winter has, unfortunately, been as high as 15 per cent, or five to six nurses a day. The department has put in place a contingency plan to manage this situation. It involves the use of casual staff, backup by Level 3 and Level 4 registered nurses, and regular meetings between operating theatre staff and surgical bookings staff to minimise disruption. In addition, there are ongoing efforts to attract interested and experienced registered nurses for operating theatres through local and national advertising.

Woden Valley Hospital is currently proposing to develop a short program to support nurses with an interest in working in operating rooms. Rather than sitting back and doing nothing about it, as the previous Government did, we have put in place a proposal to attempt to overcome this problem. Management is also canvassing interest from staff working in other areas of the hospital and in the department. An on-the-job skills update program in operating room techniques will be provided to all staff who are interested and who have either no experience or limited background in this area.

I should say, Mr Speaker, that there are no easy answers to this problem, which has caused me and, I am sure, previous Ministers significant concern. I regard this shortage of nurses as a priority and will be seeking discussions with the relevant parties, as we already have, particularly senior hospital managers and the ANF, to look at options other than the ones I have spoken about - on-the-job skills update programs, training programs generally, advertising and so on. The root of the problem is twofold. First, shifts in operating theatres are regarded as being highly stressful and demanding on nursing staff; and, secondly, there appears to be a limited emphasis upon this aspect of health care in nursing studies at a tertiary level. We need to address both of these issues, and we are. It may require some innovative solutions, and I would be interested to hear from anybody in this Assembly who has ideas to overcome this problem.

Mr Connolly: It sounds like the August waiting list is blowing out.

MRS CARNELL: No, it has actually gone down, Mr Connolly. But, rather than wait for it to more than double, we have decided to take action early.

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