COVID’s strain on health system also a drain on intensive care studies
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The head of nursing at Melbourne University has warned that the pandemic is leaving Victorian nursing staff too overworked and burnt out to contemplate the further study required to become a qualified intensive care nurse.
Teams working in intensive care units in Victorian hospitals are also too stretched to support postgraduate students on placement, despite the extra demand for qualified intensive care nurses, the director of postgraduate studies in nursing at Deakin University says.
An ICU nurse and an anaesthetist attend to a COVID-infected patient inside the ICU ward of Western Health’s Footscray Hospital last year. Credit:Penny Stephens
Professor Marie Gerdtz, the head of the Department of Nursing at the University of Melbourne, said the COVID-19 pandemic was having an impact on the capacity of nurses to take up the further study required to work in critical and intensive care.
As of Sunday, there are 325 people in hospital with COVID-19. Seventy-three people are in intensive care, with 54 people on ventilators.
Premier Daniel Andrews on Sunday acknowledged the difficulties in getting staff trained for working in ICU during a pandemic, which he said was “very, very challenging work”.
“All health work is challenging, but these patients are very, very difficult work,” Mr Andrews said. “Plus, not everybody is a critically care trained nurse and you don’t produce one in five minutes either. These are highly, highly skilled people.”
Many nurses are working too many hours to contemplate further study, or are unable to afford to because others in their family have lost work. Others are also suffering burnout and fatigue, Professor Gerdtz said.
“Since the pandemic, workforce shortages have dramatically increased in the public hospital system and our partner health services have responded proactively by supporting more nurses to undertake specialist training in critical care at the University of Melbourne,” she said.
“Sadly this year, while some nurses continue to be keen to take up study with financial support from employers and government, the pandemic is having an impact.”
Deakin University also offers postgraduate qualifications in critical care and intensive care nursing. Students are required to be working concurrently in these fields as they study.
‘All health work is challenging, but these patients are very, very difficult work.’
Deakin associate professor of nursing, Melissa Bloomer, said the strain that COVID-infected patients were placing on the hospital system had made this requirement harder to fulfil.
“Concurrent employment in the relevant speciality area is a course requirement,” Professor Bloomer said.
“So despite the increasing interest and demand for upskilling nurses to work in intensive and critical care, the clinical response to COVID-19 has impacted the capacity of ICU teams to increase the number of students they can support during their postgraduate studies.”
The Age asked Melbourne, Deakin and La Trobe universities if enrolments in critical and intensive care nursing had been affected by the pandemic, but none of the institutions provided figures.
Doctors have warned that staff shortages in hospital emergency departments have reached a point where they risk being shut down when coronavirus outbreaks take hold. They have called for the establishment of an emergency plan to cope with future hospital staffing shortages.
The Victorian government is running a recruitment campaign, calling on healthcare workers and students to join the COVID-19 workforce.
Students in fields including medicine, dentistry, physiotherapy, occupational therapy, pharmacy, nursing and midwifery and paramedicine have been urged to join.
Australian Nursing and Midwifery Foundation Victorian Branch president Lisa Fitzpatrick said the high cost of postgraduate nursing studies was a disincentive for some members of the workforce to upgrade their qualifications.
“University fees are expensive and I don’t know the rationale for the expense behind those postgraduate qualifications. Most of them are a six-month course but somehow [people] are still being charged $11,000 to $15,000,” she said.
Interest in studying nursing at the undergraduate level has surged in the pandemic, with fees being cut by 45 per cent this year under the Morrison government’s Job Ready Graduates reforms.
But some students on placements, as well as new graduates, have reported feeling exhaustion and disconnection from colleagues while working in emergency departments, the head of a support agency for nurses says.
Glenn Taylor, the chief executive of the Nursing and Midwifery Health Program, said the pandemic had deprived some graduates of the chance to form important bonds with new colleagues, and for established medical staff to mentor new arrivals.
“Now everyone is working at a very high capacity and we’re hearing that there is that anxiety that the students and early career nurses are feeling, like they’re finding it hard to find their place, because of all the uncertainty, demands and change,” Mr Taylor said.
With Ashleigh McMillan
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