Hospital staffing crisis gets a national voice

Long-serving Tenterfield nurses Norma Rhodes and Stacey Butler appeared on Sunday's 60 Minutes as part of a report on rural health facilities.
Long-serving Tenterfield nurses Norma Rhodes and Stacey Butler appeared on Sunday's 60 Minutes as part of a report on rural health facilities.

Tenterfield Hospital featured heavily in a 60 Minutes segment on Sunday night regarding what reporter Liz Hayes called 'the dangers of falling ill in the country'.

Ms Hayes said following her report three months ago on her father's death she has been inundated with dedicated medical professions on the front line who feel they can no longer be expected to prop up a failing rural health system.

Two of those professionals were Tenterfield nurses Norma Rhodes and Stacey Butler.

"I used to often wake up and think 'Is today going to be another day that I'm never going to forget," Norma said.

"Often you'd think that."

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They say they are fighting a losing battle. They often can't get to ringing phones and are left wondering who was at the other end of the call.

"It's people's lives we're dealing with," Stacey said.

"It's too much to do day after day after day."

Between them the two nurses have worked 40 years in Tenterfield Hospital. Of late it was often just the two of them manning the hospital, with no doctor.

They said they would wake in the morning, fearful of what the day will bring.

Changes at the hospital over past years include reduction of the hospital's 66 beds to 13, and huge reductions in staffing levels.

Stacey said they still get the same presentations as city hospitals -- the cardiac arrests, motor vehicle accidents, falls and fractures -- and there's just two nurses in the building.

These days country hospitals often rely on medical staff flying in and out for short periods, but Norma and Stacey said there have been instances where doctors and agency nurses have taken one look and left.

Paradoxically the staffing situation makes it difficult to attract new staff, leading to an increasing reliance of Telehealth which involves consulting via video with a doctor who could be located anywhere on earth.

While Telehealth has earned its merits as a complementary service to bring city-based expertise to country hospitals, concerningly in her report Ms Hayes said often a virtual doctor is only doctor a country patient will see.

This is due to difficulties in attracting doctors to the bush rather than a cost-cutting measures, according to Western NSW Local Health District's Dr Shannon Nott. He said that, to date, the care provided by virtual teams is consistent with face-to-face coverage.

A community petition in Gulgong resulted in the reinstatement of a doctor at its hospital, with petition organisers urging other communities to 'speak up'.

Stacey said walking away from her job at the hospital was the hardest decision of her life.

"It was the most horrific feeling, walking away and leaving everyone up there."

An incident at the hospital proved to be Norma's breaking point, bringing her to the conclusion that she just couldn't do it anymore.

Locum doctor Phillip Jolly, interviewed on the program, believes the fix for the rural health system is to provide inducements to entice doctors to work in country hospitals, including financial incentives that put them on par with their city counterparts.