Union calls for safe nurse-to-patient ratio laws

AT a time when a single nurse can find herself caring for up to 30 elderly patients, the country’s largest nursing union has called for legislation to guarantee safe nurse-to-patient ratios.

Liam Doran, general secretary of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO), said it was the only way to “find a floor” below which staffing levels should not drop.

“At the moment we don’t have that floor. As far as we can see, there is nothing low enough that some managers in the health service will view as being acceptable. They will cut and cut and tell midwives and nurses to go short regardless of the illness of patients.”

If ratios are introduced, they should reflect how sick the patient is and be at the discretion of the nurse or midwife in charge, Mr Doran said, during a press conference at the INMO annual delegate conference in Kilkenny.

Anne McGowan, INMO second vice-president and a staff nurse at Sligo General Hospital, said it was “not unusual” to have two nursing staff looking after 28 acutely ill patients, both medical and surgical, during the evening. She said 60 beds at the hospital had closed since 2008.

Mary Barrett, a nurse working in an elderly care unit in Galway, said in her unit, one nurse and one “multi-task” attendant cared for 30 high-dependency patients from 8pm to 8am.

Mr Doran acknowledged that the introduction of minimum staffing levels would “probably become the max” but that legislation was necessary at a time when safe care was being compromised by the ongoing recruitment ban. The health service lost 4,100 staff in the past year, including 967 nurses and midwives under the moratorium, and bed closures stand at 1,776.

A further 1,200 nurses and midwives are due to retire before February of next year to avoid a 10% pay cut.

Mr Doran said it was essential to retain graduates against this backdrop. He called for the inclusion of a Graduate Placement Programme in the Government’s jobs initiative due to be launched next week.

Under the programme, 1,600 graduates would be given two-year contracts and an annual salary of €26,000.

This could be done on a cost-neutral basis – offset by retirements – and would help consolidate graduates’ position in the Irish health service, Mr Doran said.

The union is also calling on Health Minister James Reilly to fulfil his pre-election pledge to review the previous government’s decision to phase out pay for fourth-year undergraduate nurses and midwives. Dr Reilly will address the conference tomorrow.

The conference was also addressed by Pat Harvey, chair of the Health Sector Implementation Body under the Croke Park Agreement (CPA).

Speaking prior to his address, Mr Harvey said “hundreds of millions” have been saved in the health service through reform under the CPA.

Mr Harvey said a draft review of savings made showed “most of the items are in green which is colour coded to say we are on target”.


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