Like most nurses, I am not easily shockable, but I found myself almost speechless last week on learning that three nurses had been forced into the position of caring for 40 patients overnight on a heavy orthopaedic ward. (A pool nurse also came to help for part of the shift.)
NZNO organisers and delegates have argued strongly for safe staffing for years now, but unfortunately, the level of permanent and pool staffing means that staffing levels including skill mix are often unsafe, with sick staff unable to be replaced. The constant push to avoid financial penalty when the 6-hour Emergency Department rule is breached also leads to patients being moved from the Emergency Department to areas where there are simply not enough nurses to care for all the patients safely.
Under the Code of Health and Disability Services Consumers’ Rights, patients have a number of rights, including the right to co-operation amongst providers to ensure quality and continuity of services, and the right to informed consent. The right to be fully informed means information must be conveyed to the patient in a way that enables the patient to understand the treatment or advice. Right 6 of the code states that every consumer has ‘the right to the information that a reasonable consumer, in that consumer’s circumstances, would expect to receive’. Specifically, it states that patients are entitled to an explanation of his or her condition and an explanation of the options available, including an assessment of the expected risks, side effects, benefits, and costs of each option.
Given the unsafe staffing levels at some of our DHBs, it is high time that explanations around surgery, for example, go further than simply outlining the procedure and its risks and benefits. Patients should ask, and should be told, whether their post operative care will be safe. A “reasonable consumer” clearly has the right to know whether their recovery might be hampered because of unsafe staffing. Certainly, if I have surgery any time soon, I will be asking whether there are enough nurses rostered on to provide all of the care I and other patients require. Will there be enough staff to ensure that I can obtain analgesia or other medications on time? Will the nurses be able to check my vital signs often enough to notice if I am bleeding, or have arrested or need medical intervention? If I need help mobilising to the toilet, will there be someone to help me or will I risk a fall and further injury? Will there be someone to answer my call bell if I need help?
Nurses do not like being forced to ration care, but until all DHBs accept that in many instances staffing levels are unsafe (for both patients and nurses), it is a fact of life and one which can seriously impact patients’ wellbeing and recovery. Not warning patients that their post-operative care may not be optimal, and could be downright dangerous, is, in my opinion a breach of the code.