Do we need RNs in nursing homes? The NSW government doesn’t think so

 

It seems that every day I keep being reminded of issues facing the ‘premature death’ debate in Residential Aged Care Facilities (RACFs). An article today again raised this issue on a matter that had gone under my radar, that the New South Wales (NSW) minimum legislative ruling regarding a registered nurse to be on duty in a RACF 24 hours a day seven days a week had been abolished. I must say as a registered nurse, healthcare worker, former aged care registered nurse and aged care manager I was appalled.

A little background

The NSW Public Health Act 2010 superseded the NSW Public Health Act 1991. Section 104 of the 2010 act stated that a nursing home (their definition) MUST be staffed by a registered nurse at ALL times. This act was intended to ensure that RACF residents who were needing what was formerly known as high care would be taken care of by registered nurses. When this act was passed the Commonwealth Aged Care Act of 1997 was in-place and defined what was considered as high and low residential aged care.

Changes to federal funding legislation

In 2013 the Living Longer, Living Better initiative was passed by the Federal Government. This initiative did several things, but the key factor in this initiative was to eliminate the distinction between high and low residential aged care. Essentially, the government, for all intents and purposes, said that every elderly RACF resident only needed basic care, eliminating the complex health care component. This jeopardized the Public Health Act’s nursing home definition, and therefore potentially removed the requirement for registered nurses to be rostered in RACF homes 24 hours a day. However, in July of 2014 the NSW government publishes an amendment upholding section 104 and continuing to require a registered nurse in RACF homes. This amendment was only an interim measure which expired in Demeber 2015.

NSW government inquiry into RACF care

On the 25th of June 2015 the NSW government begins an inquiry entitled “Registered nurses in New South Wales nursing homes“. The inquiry is finished and the report released on the 29th of October 2015. In it the committee makes several very important distinctions about the role of registered nurses within RACFs:

3.2 For many inquiry participants the administration and management of medication in aged care facilities by registered nurses was considered essential to ensure residents’ health and safety.

 

3.4 Leichhardt Council expressed similar concern about unqualified or inappropriately qualified staff administering medications, particularly Schedule 8 drugs, as it could lead to adverse health outcomes for residents.67

 

3.12 The ability of registered nurses to clinically assess the health status of residents was another important role highlighted by stakeholders

 

3.15 The Combined Pensioners and Superannuants Association asserted that the assessment skills and expertise of registered nurses were particularly critical in aged care facilities, as – unlike hospitals – there is generally no immediate access to a doctor and in situations where a resident’s health deteriorates rapidly, a registered nurse can be at hand to make a clinical judgement about the appropriate course of action.

 

3.18 A number of inquiry participants highlighted the fact that registered nurses have the necessary skills training and experience to provide end-of-life care as a reason to mandate their continuous presence in nursing homes.

 

3.26 There was general consensus that aged care staff and enrolled nurses can undertake the personal care needs of residents with dementia, however, some inquiry participants pointed out that registered nurses are still required to administer certain medications (as already discussed throughout this chapter) and manage more challenging behaviours.

 

3.33 Numerous stakeholders noted that the supervision of enrolled nurses and aged care staff is a key accountability for registered nurses in residential aged care facilities.

 

3.37 Registered nurses also supervise aged care workers. NSW Health’s Employment of Assistants in Nursing (AIN) in NSW Health Acute Care dictates that ‘an AIN will work within a plan of care under the supervision and direction of a registered nurse when providing aspects of nursing care’.

A number of groups, such as the Australian College of Nursing (ACN), submitted statements of support for the committee recommending keeping registered nurses within RACF. The highlighted concerns that although the federal government had eliminated the high and low care qualifiers in funding nursing home residents were requiring more skilled care due to their chronic conditions. Additionally, the ACN response highlighted the committee’s evidence that assistants in nursing (AINs) and enrolled nurses (ENs) needed in-person supervision as per the requirements withing their scope of practice.

NSW government refuses to take action

However, in April of 2016 the NSW government disagreed with the committee’s findings and overturned the amendment to the Public Health Act. In an article the then health minister Jillian Skinner stated that RACF facilities were regulated by the federal government, and therefore a NSW specific requirement would constitute double regulation.

The Shooters and Fishers party, led by R.L. Brown introduced an amendment to the Public Health Act 2010 which replaced the term nursing home with a definition more appropriate to the Living Longer, Living Better initiative. This would then bring the Public Health Act of 2010 current and uphold section 104 requiring 24 hour seven day a week registered nurse coverage. The bill was passed by the upper house in May of 2017 and voted down by the lower house on the 11th of May 2017.

What does mean for RACF residents?

Within nursing homes it is often, particularly in the evening/night and weekend hours, that the registered nurse serves as the in-charge for the facility. This means they are ultimately responsible for all care and function of the facility. It is during these times that rates of pay, due to penalties, is highest for registered nurses. So it stands to reason that this is the period where a registered nurse would not be rostered on.

But who will clinically assess a resident’s need for analgesia, and would a RACF allow a non-licensed AIN to administer schedule eight medications such as Endone or Ordine? If a resident falls in a facility during these hours who is going to make the clinical assessment of whether that resident is safe to be lifted, and whether that resident should be sent to hospital? If a resident shows signs of aspiration (coughing after swallowing, difficulty breathing during meals, etc.) on a Saturday morning and no registered nurse is rostered on until Monday morning, will that resident not eat for the weekend? I know these are extreme examples, but they are common within aged care facilities.

Registered nurses within facilities also handle administrative and safety tasks. They are often required to fill sick-calls during their shifts. Registered nurses are also seen as fire wardens and trained to respond to fire alarms if needed. Who is going to undertake these jobs if the registered nurse is absent? I know these are extreme cases, but currently there is NO legislative requirement for registered nurses to be rostered within aged care facilities at ANY time. It is the discretion of the facility to decide when to roster on a registered nurse. I wonder if families of loved ones in aged care facilities would be made aware of periods when a registered nurse was not employed, and how would they feel about this?

What does this mean for the hospital and greater acute health system?

From personal experience and common sense if a registered nurse is not available in an aged care facility if a resident is requiring as needed (PRN) medication an ambulance is called. An issue with aspiration, which could be assessed by the registered nurse, would need to be undertaken by the local hospital who would be the closest access to registered nurses. Any changes in a patient’s condition would require transfer to hospital as there would be no registered nurse on premesis to assess their condition and contact the resident’s medical representative.

This means increased workload on the ambulance service and emergency departments. In a period where the number of ambulance call-outs and emergency presentations is rising do we need a further burden on our health system? And it isn’t fair for the residents themselves. Transferring a elderly person, particularly one with dementia, to hospital can lead to disorientation and further complications in their treatment leading to longer stays in hospital.

Call to action!

Jillian Skinner stated in her 2015 statement that she would encourage federal adoption of the mandatory 24 hour registered nursing requirement through the Council of Australian Governments. NSW through their own inquiry found critical evidence that registered nurses provide an invaluable link to improving a resident’s health and well-being in aged care facilities. Every clinical representative body can attest to the need for trained clinical registered nurses to be on-duty at all times in aged care facilities.

There needs to be action on this subject, not just debate and fact-finding. The evidence is overwhelming for the need for minimum clinical supervision in aged care facilities. We need lawmakers to listen to their constituents and put into place minimum standards.

References

NSW Public Health Act 2010- http://www.legislation.nsw.gov.au/inforce/e20f1d11-6a0d-ec9a-fe79-d31ae57c52c3/2010-127.pdf

Workingcarers.org.au: Living Longer Living Better changes that might affect working carers-  http://www.workingcarers.org.au/index.php/work-n-care/reports/1467-living-longer-living-better-changes-that-might-affect-working-carers

NSWNMA: Timeline of events – registered nurses in NSW nursing homes-  http://www.nswnma.asn.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Timeline-of-events-registered-nurses-in-NSW-nursing-homes.pdf

Legislative Council: Registered nurses in New South Wales nursing homes- https://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/committees/DBAssets/InquiryReport/ReportAcrobat/5821/Report%2032%20-%20Registered%20nurses%20in%20New%20South%20Wales%20n.pdf

Australian College of Nursing: ACN submission inquiry into RNs in NSW nursing homes-  http://ACN_submission_inquiry_into_RNs_in_NSW_nursing_homes.pdf

Sydney Morning Herald: NSW Government abandons 24/7 nursing in aged care homes-  http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/nsw-government-abandons-247-nursing-in-aged-care-homes-20160430-goium1.html

Talking Aged Care: NSW registered aged care nurses on duty 24/7- https://www.agedcareguide.com.au/talking-aged-care/nsw-registered-aged-care-nurses-on-duty-24-7

NSW Legislature:  Public Health Amendment (Registered Nurses in Nursing Homes) Bill 2016-  http://www.legislation.nsw.gov.au/bills/84bb3a65-4581-4187-a2b8-90a8d6e7c659

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Are we taking care of our new nurses?

As I sit at my computer I ponder what to write. Then I think to the new graduate nurses who I work with every day. In a previous life I was a university lecturer, and the same statements I hear each day from my new graduate nurses I heard from those students: “I can’t find a new graduate position”. So I wonder, what is the current state of new graduate registered nursing uptake in 2017?

This question should be an easy one to answer. The Australian Health Practitioner Association (AHPRA) agency is requiring all student nurses to be registered with them in order to fulfill clinical placements. So finding out the number of students enrolled in accredited nursing programs in Australia should be easy, right? Not so fast. I search of the AHPRA website revealed NO data on the number of student nursing registrations. Despite this AHPRA quite easily detailed a report about the number of nurses registered in Australia all the way back to 2012, along with pertinent demographic data which I used in an earlier post. So why has AHPRA not bothered to reveal student nursing numbers?

So why does this matter?

Because nursing is a profession which cannot be automated and is increasing in demand! You cannot simply create a machine to do what a nurse does, despite some attempts otherwise. In our most vulnerable state nurses provide the personal care we need. And nurses need the complexity of thought needed to provide intricate assessment of a patient’s needs and identify problems before they cause serious life-and-death situations such as those of Vanessa Anderson.

And let’s face it, the Australian public is becoming older and needing more healthcare. Modern healthcare is allowing for longer life expectancy, and with that older adults will utilize more healthcare. Additionally, the baby boomer generation will expect greater results in terms of customer care which will require adequate numbers of appropriately trained and attentive nurses. So where will these registered nurses come from?

Will there be a nursing ‘shortage’?

Last year Monash business school did a study on on the climate of the nursing and midwifery workforce. The Monash report determined that an occupation which is demanding, such as nursing, should likely see between three to six percent of its workforce intending to leave. However, this study showed that 32% were considering leaving the profession, with 25% determined to do so. Even the Department of Health in a report filed in 2013 stated their figures indicated Australia had adequate numbers of nursing staff only up to 2016. Another poll found that 100% of nurses surveyed stated that the government undervalued their role.

Ah, but overseas nurses can fill the void? It is true that a significant number of nurses are overseas-trained? The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported in 2013 that one-third of nurses (33%) were overseas-trained, up from 25% in 2001. This fact has been highlighted as a reason why Australian new graduate nurses cannot find post-registration employment. But with 33% of the 342,221 nurses registered in Australia overseas-trained in 2016 is the overseas nurse a threat to our domestic nursing cohort? Some may think so. The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation feels that the 457 visa program for overseas nurses is “… being taken as a shortcut and that employers see it as a quick fix.”

Troubles post-study for nurses

Publicity around newly registered nurse employment seemed to peak in 2014-2015. ABC news reported that ” thousands of nursing graduates are unable to find work in Australian hospitals.” Even in 2016 the rumbling of underemployment of nursing graduates continued. In West Australia a WA Today article reported that only 500 of about 1500 (33%) newly graduated nursing students secured a nursing role. The Health Times reported that of the new graduate nurses in 2007 97.4% were able to secure full-time employment; however, in 2014 that figure dropped to 80.5%.

So where do we go from here?

Firstly, we need to have clear evidence as to the extent of the problem. I would call on AHPRA as the registration body to release statistical figures about the number of student registrations, just as they have done for registered and enrolled nurses. With that information we can clearly see how many students we have in nursing programs in Australia. Additionally, I would call on AHPRA to include a statistical figure on the number of overseas-trained nurses registered in Australia. As they are the governing body and provide the certification that overseas nurses are able to work in this country they would be able to provide figures as-such.

Secondly I would suggest the Department of Health re-visit their strategy paper on nursing retention and recruitment. This report is from 2013 and stated the nursing workforce was only adequate until 2016. If the government does care about the potential nursing workforce into the future reviewing their strategies and making a future policy framework would be necessary. It would also be helpful for the Council of Australian Governments to convene on this issue as they are the primary employer of a large number of nurses through the public health hospital system.

Without adequate statistical data there can be no informative discussion regarding the debate over new graduate nurses in Australia. One thing is certain, without adequate places for these energetic and qualified nurses to go the profession will continue to struggle in providing adequate healthcare to the increasing ageing population of Australia. Policy makers and statisticians need to act now in preventing a healthcare crisis in the future.

References

AHPRA: Student registration-  https://www.ahpra.gov.au/Registration/Student-Registrations.aspx

Advantech: Industry 4.0: It’s happening – Nurses are replaced by Robots- http://www.advantech.com/machine-automation/industry%20focus/206d0919-7a6f-4c80-9caa-cdfd662bd712/

The Australian: Coroner blames hospital for death- http://www.theaustralian.com.au/archive/news/coroner-blames-hospital-for-death/news-story/3d9318ea30f206211774e7931bd6526e

Sydney Morning Herald: Healthcare is a booming industry and Australia is in the box seat-  http://www.smh.com.au/comment/the-care-boom-20160928-grqqzv.html

Sydney Morning Herald: With an ageing population is healthcare sustainable?-  http://www.smh.com.au/comment/with-an-ageing-population-is-healthcare-sustainable-20160319-gnm98t.html

Monash University: What Nurses & Midwives Want: Findings from the National

Survey on Workplace Climate and Well-being-  https://business.monash.edu/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/624127/What-Nurses-And-Midwives-Want-Findings-from-the-National-Survey-on-Workplace-Climate-and-Well-being-2016.pdf

Department of Health: 7.2 Nursing and midwifery retention-  http://www.health.gov.au/internet/publications/publishing.nsf/Content/work-review-australian-government-health-workforce-programs-toc~chapter-7-nursing-midwifery-workforce%E2%80%93education-retention-sustainability~chapter-7-nursing-midwifery-retention

Australian Bureau of Statistics: 4102.0 – Australian Social Trends, April 2013-  http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4102.0Main+Features20April+2013

Sydney Morning Herald: Nurse graduates ‘locked out’ of workforce as migrants get jobs-  http://www.smh.com.au/business/workplace-relations/nurse-graduates-locked-out-of-workforce-as-migrants-get-jobs-20150606-ghi9c8.html

Health Times: Generation Next – Helping Graduate Nurses and Midwives Find Jobs-  https://healthtimes.com.au/hub/nursing-careers/6/news/nc1/generation-next-helping-graduate-nurses-and-midwives-find-jobs/1422/

ABC News: Thousands of nursing graduates unable to find work in Australian hospitals: union-  http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-05-24/thousands-of-nursing-graduates-unable-to-find-work/5475320

NSW Nursing and Midwifery Association: Nurse graduates unemployed or underemployed-  http://www.nswnma.asn.au/nurse-graduates-unemployed-or-underemployed/

Health Times: Nursing shortage expected to worsen-  https://healthtimes.com.au/hub/workplace-conditions/60/news/nc1/nursing-shortage-expected-to-worsen/490/

WA Today: All trained up with nowhere to go: WA’s hundreds of unemployed graduate nurses-  http://www.watoday.com.au/wa-news/all-trained-up-with-nowhere-to-go-was-hundreds-of-unemployed-graduate-nurses-20161211-gt8qkz.html