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Nursing crisis closes beds.

A shortage of specialist nurses has forced the closure of 10pc of beds at the region's leading orthopaedic unit, a top consultant has revealed.

John Williams, medical director of the Musculo-Skeletal department at the Newcastle Hospitals Trust, said that despite working evenings and weekends and relying heavily on the private sector, their waiting list had risen by 550 patients in the last nine months.

A shortage of nurses is the biggest challenge facing the department, with six of the unit's 60 beds closed because there are not the staff to man them.

Criticising the "short-term fix" of Government performance targets, Mr Williams warned that without a major cash injection and more staff, hospitals across the country would be unable to meet this year's waiting list targets.

"The bottom line is we need more theatre space and more bed space," he said, "but it is the shortage of specialist nurses that is causing us the biggest problems and unless we can recruit more we are not going to hit the targets that are being expected of us this year.

"Trying to get the waiting times down is very laudable - a decade ago patients could be on a list years with no realistic hope of ever getting surgery.

"But we can only go as fast as the slowest step in the system and these short-term pressures being put on us by the Government simply mean that at the end of a financial year my colleagues are working seven days a week, 24 hours a day and it's not sustainable. It's not healthy for them or for the patients."

Last year, the 16-strong team of orthopaedic consultants based at Newcastle's Freeman Hospital - one of the region's leading units which is pioneering techniques in hip and spinal surgery - carried out a total of 2,673 operations and 5,410 clinic appointments.

This was on top of the trauma work - broken bones through falls and road traffic accidents, for example - that comes in through the Accident and Emergency department at Newcastle General Hospital. Despite their best efforts, the waiting list still grew by 550 patients in the first nine months of last year.

By April 1 this year, the team managed to hit its target of no patient waiting over 12 months. However, the target for April 2004 is no-one waiting over nine months which will mean an extra 150 patients on top of everything else.

Mr Williams said: "I believe we are providing our patients with a quality service but if we are to keep improving we need to see more inward investment rather than lining the pockets of the private sector and we need more flexible goals.

"A five-year plan would allow time for the newly-trained nurses to come through the system and also allow us to spread the workload more evenly."

A spokeswoman for the RCN said: "The nursing shortage still represents a real threat to patients. We're calling on Government to keep up their efforts to recruit more nurses, and to work even harder to retain those we already have. The nursing shortage is just not sorted - it is nowhere near sorted. Ask any patient, ask any nurse." The spokeswoman said much of the shortfall was being made up by nurses from overseas and this was masking the real staffing shortfall.

But a Department of Health spokeswoman said: "The number of nurses working in the NHS is increasing and is at an all-time high with more than 40,000 extra nurses since 1997.

"We are on track but more work needs to be done if we are to reach the target of 80,000 more nurses by 2008 compared to 1997."

She added that there would always be vacancies within nursing but the rate had been falling over the past two years.

Figures are 'masking problem'

Headline figures showing the NHS has 40,000 extra nurses mask widespread staffing shortages, the Royal College of Nursing claims.

Official Government figures show that since 1997 the number of NHS nurses has risen by 40,000.

But the RCN says much of the increase was made up of nurses from overseas and there are still significant staffing shortfalls across the UK.

Speaking at the union's annual congress last week, general secretary Dr Beverly Malone said the number of nurses registered in the UK would not have increased in the last four years without the rapid growth in the numbers of internationally recruited nurses.

"Without that aggressive international recruitment we would be running hard just to stand still," she said.

And she pointed out that over the next five years some 50,000 nurses in the NHS will reach retirement age.

"Let's be clear, we are in a race against time," she said.

Region needs extra 539 nurses to fill current vacancies

The North-East needs an extra 539 nurses in order to fill the vacancies which currently exist in hospitals across the region.

This means wards in the North-East are running at an estimated 3pc vacancy rate, not taking into account sickness and holidays, although this masks the discrepancies between different specialties.

In the last two years, 448 nurses have been recruited from overseas to plug gaps in the region. The RCN claims this is a "short-term solution to a long-term problem" but the Department of Health argues this is a sensible way to ensure a quality NHS until the extra newly-trained nurses come up through the system.

Extra nursing and midwifery courses have been run across the UK as part of the Government's bid to boost the number of nurses on NHS wards.

In the North-East alone, 762 nurses are due to qualify in 2003. However, this does not take into account the estimated 1,000 North-East nurses who are due to retire.

I will resign if patients charged

Health Secretary Alan Milburn yesterday pledged to resign if patients end up being charged for treatment in the proposed foundation hospitals.

His claim came as he and Prime Minister Tony Blair went on the offensive to face down a possible revolt in the Commons over controversial reform of the NHS when it is debated tomorrow.

In a sign that a major revolt is on the cards, 133 Labour backbenchers have signed a motion opposing foundation hospitals.

The Conservative Party has warned the Government not to count on its support and the Liberal Democrats have already declared their opposition.

MPs and union leaders fear the plan to create new elite hospitals, freed from Whitehall control with fund-raising powers, will create a "two-tier" NHS and amount to a creeping privatisation of the health service.

But Mr Milburn said there was no danger of this being a step towards privatisation and warned that MPs refusing to back the new policy were failing to face the challenge to reform the NHS.

Marian praises staff

Marian Hemsley hasn't got a bad word to say against the orthopaedic team at Newcastle's Freeman Hospital.

Undergoing a hip-replacement in October, the 71-year-old says she is now living pain-free and can't believe the difference it has made to her life.

But she is adamant, based on her own experience, that people should not have to wait for operations and that more should be done to ensure NHS hospitals have the money and staff to treat patients quickly.

"I was waiting 18 months for my operation and during that time I was in real pain," says the grandmother-of-three from Jubilee Road, Gosforth, Newcastle.

"Also, because I waited so long my knee has taken a lot of strain and my hip bone started to wear away so now my right leg is shorter than my left. I don't blame the hospital because the staff there were wonderful. But I definitely don't think people should have to wait so long."

The once fit and active mother of two developed severe arthritis and was put on to the orthopaedics waiting list two years ago.

However, after nine months Marian was diagnosed as having a hyperactive thyroid gland and had to be treated with thoroxin to bring her weight back to normal.

Because the operation was delayed she had to rejoin the waiting list queue - and had to wait another nine months for an operation - eventually relying on a wheelchair and stick to get around.

"I know there are people worse off than me but I was frightened that if the operation was delayed too long I might never be able to walk again," says Mrs Hemsley, who lives with her husband, James, and has two children.

"The staff were so apologetic to me at the time and I just think more should be done to help them do their job properly and make sure people don't have to wait in pain."
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Title Annotation:News Local
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:May 6, 2003
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