Efforts are under way to plug major staffing gaps at the Gilbert Bain Hospital, with the Ronas Ward’s rehabilitation unit set to be mothballed by the end of February.
NHS Shetland plans to “reallocate” staff from the rehab unit to other wards as it deals with a shortfall in nurses.
The health service says it has made “continued efforts” to recruit, but 7.3 full time equivalent qualified nurse posts remain vacant in wards, theatres and outpatients – a shortfall of almost nine per cent.
Staff have been asked to work overtime and additional shifts have been laid on, but health chiefs admit that is not “sustainable” over the long term.
Patients currently in the rehabilitation unit will continue to receive their care in the Ronas Ward. However, the unit will be closed to incoming patients. Moves are being made to plan for care in wards one and three, with staff being concentrated in these wards.
Possible closure of the Ronas Ward has been discussed several times in recent months, as NHS Shetland looks to move towards a model adopting more community-based care.
But chief executive Ralph Roberts says the latest move has been made in response to staffing concerns. A final decision on what will happen with the unit will be taken when the integration joint board meets at the beginning of March. In the meantime, other services in Ronas Ward – such as the chemotherapy day unit – have not been affected.
“We started talking to the staff of the need for us to move the staff into other wards because of vacancies that we’ve got across the hospital,” Mr Roberts said.
“We obviously can’t do that while we’ve got patients in Ronas. What we’re planning to do is talk to the staff over the next month while the patients who are currently in Ronas go through their rehab and are discharged. We expect that to take most of February.
“At the point that we don’t have any patients in the rehab unit in Ronas anymore we will temporarily mothball … the [rehab unit] and use the staff elsewhere in the hospital. From that time there will be no inpatients in the ward.”
He stressed that “no decision” had been taken on the long-term future of the ward.
“That’s a decision that is part and parcel of the discussion with the integration joint board. We are expecting to take a paper to them on 10th March. Subject to those discussions we will then go back and look at what we do longer term.
“At the moment this is about responding to the fact that we’ve got vacancies across the hospital and we need to make better use of our nursing staff.”
Mr Roberts said staffing problems were being felt across the UK, although he admitted the number of vacancies in the isles was higher than it had been in the past.
“We can cover that, but that requires us to get overtime, extra shifts. It’s not sustainable for the staff in the long term and it has a financial impact at a time when we want to avoid any unnecessary expenditure.”
He stressed that patient care should not be affected.
“Some of this is about ensuring we sustain continuity of care. If we look at the number of beds we’ve got available in the hospital to provide care, we’ve capacity to provide all the care that is required in the other wards – and that won’t change.”
Figures from NHS Shetland show occupancy in the hospital during the last quarter of 2016 averaged 52 per cent, varying from 28 per cent to 78 per cent.
Without the beds in the rehabilitation unit, the NHS says occupancy would have instead have averaged 58 per cent, with a variation from 32 per cent to 89 per cent.
It says this “relatively low” occupancy is a result of the “excellent work done by staff and carers”.