THE casual pool of nurses at Lismore Base Hospital has been "drained" and the current level of overtime "cannot be maintained", hospital management has revealed in a memo obtained by The Northern Star.
As exhausted nurses closed beds this week to highlight the understaffing crisis, the memo from thedirector of nursing, Peter Jeffree, verifies for the first time union claims that the teaching hospital is dangerously understaffed, with almost one in 10 nursing positionsvacant.
President of the Lismore branch of the NSW Nurses Federation Gil Wilson said while it was difficult to get correct figures from management, those contained in the memo "seem about right".
The August 26 memo, addressed to Mr Wilson and obtained by the Northern Star from a third party, conceded there were the equivalent of about 55 vacant nursing positions.
Mr Jeffree wrote that while the hospital was attempting to fill 15 permanent vacancies and anotherseven maternity-leave replacement positions, there had been "a significant decrease in the number of applicants to the point where some positions there have been no applicants".
The bulk of the other positions caused by staff injuries, illness, the opening of surge beds due to increased demand, and secondment to other hospitals, were being "backfilled" with casuals and overtime.
"Unfortunately the high number of injured and sick staff, and the exceptional high winter activity, drained our casual pool," the memo said. "Therefore when there is no available casual staff, the only option at this time is for the part-time staff to pick up additional shifts and for overtime.
"It is acknowledged that the current level of overtime cannot be maintained, and all avenues are being explored to try and provide some relief."
Mr Wilson said this week that nurses at the base had worked more than 170 hours overtime in just two days.
"That's completely unsustainable, but it's just the tip of the iceberg," he said. "Just look at the casuals working seven and eight days in a row and permanent part-timers working extra shifts on top of that."
Vahid Saberi, general manager of Richmond/Clarence Health Service Group, Northern NSW Local Health District, told The Northern Star that Lismore's nurses had collectively worked an average of 20 hours overtime a day during the first two weeks of September after a peak in August.
Part-time staff working extra hours are not included in management's overtime figure.
Mr Saberi said most of the need for overtime was due to sick and unplanned staff leave, and surgery. He added recruiting casual staff to fill these hours would take several weeks.
Due to the problem of attracting applicants to permanent positions, the health network has received "special" permission to advertise wider, including in New Zealand.
Despite the staffing crisis, MrSaberi rejected union calls for employment of private-sector agency nurses.
"Agency nurses are only engaged by hospitals after all other avenues for nurse recruitment have been exhausted. At this stage Lismore Base Hospital has not exhausted all other avenues for nurse recruitment," he said.