Written Answers. - Nursing Staff.

Alan Shatter

Question:

108 Mr. Shatter asked the Minister for Health and Children the number of cardiac operations postponed in the Mater Hospital during 1998 due to both nursing shortages and financial stringencies; the number of patients affected still awaiting cardiac surgery; and the action, if any, he will take to address the difficulties experienced by the hospital. [1378/99]

I have had inquiries made of the hospital authorities regarding this matter and I have been advised that the hospital was unable to meet its agreed baseline activity for 1998 of 1,000 cardiac surgery cases due to nursing shortages. I have been further advised that no cardiac surgery operations were cancelled at the hospital during 1998 due to financial stringencies.

As a consequence of the nursing shortages, I understand that the hospital had to reduce its cardiac patient workload from four to three patients per day during 1998. This resulted in 890 baseline activity patients being treated last year.

The Deputy will wish to know that officials from my Department met with the hospital authorities earlier this month to discuss arrangements for dealing with the cardiac waiting list during 1999 in an effort to ensure that the baseline activity levels are achieved this year.

In this context, my Department expressed concern about those patients who are waiting in excess of 12 months for cardiac surgery operations and requested that their circumstances be considered in the context of any initiatives undertaken in 1999.

The Deputy will be aware that in 1998 I allocated funding of £2.3 million under the cardiac surgery waiting list initiative, with the specific aim of reducing the national cardiac surgery waiting list for adults and children. In 1999, I have made provision for the allocation of £4 million under the cardiac surgery waiting list initiative and I am confident that this funding will build on last year's success in reducing the total number of adults and children on the waiting list. Despite the difficulties at the Mater Hospital in recent months, referred to above, the impact of the 1998 cardiac surgery waiting list initiative was to reduce the overall numbers waiting (adults and children) at the end of the September 1998 by 349. This rep resents a reduction of 22 per cent on the figure for September 1997.
The problem of nurse shortages is an issue which has become more apparent in recent times. While the recruitment of nurses is primarily a matter for individual employers, the overall issue of the availability of nurses is being kept under review by the Health Service Employers' Agency (HSEA). In response to current difficulties, the HSEA has established a task force to examine the full nature of the difficulties in recruiting nursing staff and to make recommendations on appropriate action.
The House will be aware that last week I launched the competitions for places on this year's nursing diploma programmes. I also announced an increased annual maintenance grant of £3,250 payable to nursing students and the provision of funding of £350,000 to An Bord Altranais and various schools of nursing for a recruitment campaign, at both national and local level, aimed at attracting more young people to enter nursing. I am hopeful that these initiatives will result in a successful outcome to this year's competitions and a full uptake of all the available training places.
It should be pointed out that Ireland is not in a unique position in relation to the shortage of nurses. The reality is that the United States, the United Kingdom and most other European countries are also experiencing a shortage of nursing personnel. Nurses with specialist qualifications in areas such as cardiac care are particularly sought after.
Pay rates for staff nurses are higher here than in the UK and a number of other European countries, including Germany and the Netherlands. However, there are indications that nurses are leaving Dublin and taking up posts in rural areas. The cost of housing, traffic difficulties and the lack of car parking spaces are seen as disincentives to taking up posts in Dublin.
The strength of the economy is also having an impact on the availability of nurses. Nurses have enhanced mobility by virtue of their education, training and skills. In the current economic boom, they are much sought after by pharmaceutical and related companies in the private health sector, as well as by commercial concerns in other sectors.
Arising from the work of the task force, the HSEA outlined to the nursing unions in November 1998 a number of initiatives to address the shortage, including the standardisation of overtime rates and full incremental credit on permanent appointment for relevant previous nursing experience both at home and abroad. In addition, the HSEA has agreed to the introduction of more flexible working arrangements for nursing staff. The HSEA expects to be in a position to announce details of this scheme shortly.
Having regard to the difficulties in recruiting nurses being experienced by hospitals, it should be noted that my Department has recently engaged a nurse researcher to specifically study nursing needs for the coming years and to carry out research on the reasons why nurses are leaving their profession. When this research has been completed, my Department will be in a better position to further address the issue of nursing shortages.