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The NSW Public Health Act 2010 superseded the NSW Public Health Act 1991.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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Is it still NEAT? The four hour rule, does it have a place in ED?

The National Emergency Access Target (NEAT) was implemented in 2011 to assist with combating the perceived increase in Emergency Department (ED) presentations along with increased wait times within those EDs. The NEAT was based on a similar measure in the UK which implemented a strict four hour rule which stipulated that patients within four hours from the time of triage were to either be admitted to a ward or discharge after completion of their treatment. The NEAT provided financial incentives for meeting the goals of presentations admitted or discharged within four hours, with the eventual goal to be a 90% success rate by 2015.

The Council of Australian Governments (COAGs) recognized that the inability of EDs to move patients within a reasonable time was a whole-hospital process. Bed block (the lack of available in-patient beds within the hospital) and delays in assessment and treatment contribute heavily to the increased time spent in ED. The hope was financial ‘carrots’ would encourage the hospital executives to drive efficiency within the entire hospital and lead to better outcomes for all patients wherever they were in the treatment continuum.

Funding for the NEAT program was ended in the 2014-2015 budget by the Abbot government. The goal of 90% of patients being treated and moved out of ED within four hours was not achieved. However, despite the criticism of the intervention there have been some benefits of its implementation. In 2016 Adrian Rollins from the Australian Medical Association indicated that statistics like mortality of patients were improving with the NEAT in place, and that the added funding was allowing for improvements in the hospital system. With NEAT removed that funding had stalled. The Medical Journal of Australia also published a study which stated that patient mortality decreased when NEAT was applied to a certain percentage, however there was a plateau to that relationship. A systematic review undertaken by Queensland Health over the NEAT targets also showed some mixed positive results with initiation of treatment benefited by the four hour rule.

The landscape of EDs has seen a positive change as a result of NEAT. ED short-stay wards have been developed to allow for patients who are not admitted to the ward stay overnight for continuing assessment and treatment while freeing up acute beds. Nurse initiated treatments have become more relevant post- NEAT. Hospital administrators and ward managers along with specialist medical teams have become used to the need for assessment within a set time-frame, leading to overall faster admissions.

Yes, the NEAT target was a very blunt instrument which used a very narrow gauge to serve as an incentive for a change in the way acute healthcare was delivered in Australia. However, as those reporting its history have noted it was a measure which was universal across all acute services and would allow for some rough gauge of efficiency across the hospital system. Is it by any means the best measure, no. But it gave EDs something to strive for, and on the back end it allowed for improvements in the hospital and emergency system which have benefited patients. As the Medical Journal of Australia has commented since the NEAT funding has ceased expenditure within the hospital system has somewhat stalled.

What do you think about NEAT?

References used

Medical Journal of Australia: The National Emergency Access Target (NEAT) and the 4-hour rule: time to review the target

Australian Medical Association: Nothing NEAT about putting lives at risk

Deeble Institute Issues Brief: The National Emergency Access Target: aiming for the target but what about the goal?

College of Emergency Nursing Australia: Position Statement, National Emergency Access Target

Privacy concern or valuable tool: all Aussies can have an e-health record, would you?


The ABC network has written that with a new surge in federal funding the My Health Record project looks to provide all Australians with the ability to have an electronic health summary. This is a follow-on from other E-health projects trying to establish similar results. While I can understand the apprehension noted by some with regards to privacy and sharing of health information from a healthcare worker’s perspective it is a great leap forward.



In my history as a registered nurse I remember the days before electronic health records. The nature of our health system in Australia means that an individual can present at numerous public and private health institutions without any ability of those institutions knowing prior medical treatment. This is a safety concern for the patient at worst and could potentially prolong the time for effective treatment in the least.


With the implementation of the local electronic health record if I am looking after a patient who has visited another health facility within the same area, state, or even nationally connected the doctor and I can see previous treatments and tests, allowing for more accurate diagnosis and treatment. Expanding this nationally would allow those visiting or recently moved to the area to have better quality care by allowing information sharing.


It is also better for the GP. Now general practitioners must rely on discharge summaries for information about hospital treatment. However, with the electronic record the GP could access more complete information from hospital visits, aiding in their continuation of care at home. A GP could also review and place information for patients on the record in case they travel or are too sick to speak for themselves, vital information which could save their life.


There is always a potential for abuse of the system. However, I would trust that the powers-at-be would design safeguards to prevent unauthorized information sharing of electronic health records. I, for one, will be happy to welcome this advancement in Australian healthcare. According to the ABC report individuals would be allowed to ‘opt out’ of the program.

ABC news: Everyone to have a digital health record

The tragedy of Manchester brings out the true colours of emergency services

As a relatively short-lived member of an emergency department I can say I have never been through a horrific event like that which occurred in Manchester, UK. But the spirit behind all of the nurses in the six hospitals lives within all of us.

By default emergency nurses and doctors are trained to take a patient with little background and through systematic assessment treat the priorities to bring about the best possible outcome.

Nurses learn to act selflessly and tirelessly to get the job done. I am proud to consider myself a member of an elite fraternity called emergency room nurses. Absolute praise and respect to all those who helped in the aftermath.