SERIOUS staffing problems at Southend Hospital have led to beds being closed and its agency costs doubling in a year.
Figures just released for April show that 12 beds had to be closed across three wards because there were not enough nurses to safely look after patients.
Staff shortages in the same month saw the trust’s bill for agency workers hit more than £1.1million – double what it spent in April 2012.
New national minimum staffing levels, introduced this spring, require a minimum of one nurse per eight patients.
In some cases trust bosses have been unable to fulfil this, even with the aid of bank and agency staff, meaning beds have had to close in major departments, and matrons have been nursing, instead of doing managerial work. In April, seven beds were closed in Paglesham ward, in the stroke unit, due to high staff sickness and vacancy levels.
These beds, for those recovering from strokes, were still closed when the Echo enquired yesterday.
Closed: 12 beds were closed to patients in April
One of five high-dependency unit beds on Kitty Hubbard ward was closed for four days in April.
Four beds were also closed on Neptune Ward, in the paediatric department, due to low staff levels, while the neo-natal unit was closed to new admissions twice in April.
Aside from those on Paglesham ward, these beds have now re-opened, but the trust went into a deficit of £500,000 in April, due to high spending.
A report on the crisis to the hospital board of directors said: “The (stroke) unit had a high level of sickness in addition to vacancies, which have been difficult to recruit to.
“Staffing levels on every shift period fell below agreed levels.
The risk level was addressed with the continued closure of seven beds of Paglesham ward to improve nurse to patient ratio.”
Staff shortage: Southend Hospital
In early April, the trust also declared a “major internal incident”
due to higher levels of A&E patients than expected, which also put more strain on staff.
The trust had been due to permanently close the 25-bed Princess Ann Ward, which caters for elderly people, for refurbishment, but this had to be halted so beds could be used for A&E overspill during the problems.
The staff shortages has sent the costs for agency nurses spiralling up. This meant the total cost of staff for April was £12million.
The report added: “Agency spend continued on the recent high trend at £1.1million. The agency expenditure in April this year was more than double that of April in the prior financial year, with the biggest increase being seen on medical staff.”
The board will now have monthly staffing updates to monitor the issue.
Short supply: More nurses are needed
A hospital spokeswoman said 22 Spanish nurses starting this month would help relieve the pressure.
She said: “Pagelsham ward is a rehabilitation ward for those patients recovering from stroke and works in partnership with Benfleet ward which accommodates acute stroke patients.
“The decision to close seven beds was taken to ensure appropriate levels of staff are available on the more acute ward, as some rehabilitation patients can be treated on other wards. Pagelesham ward was identified as one of our priority areas during our current overseas recruitment campaign in Spain and we were delighted to welcome the first 22 Spanish nurses to Southend this week.
“Following their induction they will take up posts across the organisation.
A second cohort from Spain are due to arrive in August.
The intake has been staggered to allow the nurses to be fully supported as they make the transition to working here.”
Contrast: Basildon Hospital
In contrast, Basildon Hospital nurses treat just seven patients each, lower than the national requirement.
The trust said it had not closed any beds since the ratio system was introduced as it has been able to top the requirement.
The trust has kept fulltime vacancies down to 138 after an ongoing recruitment drive in Spain and the Philippines.
A report to the board said: “As a result of a concerted drive led by the clinical divisions, in excess of 200 nurses commenced employment with the trust in the period from June 2013.
More than 100 of these appointments were recruited from within the UK.
Overseas recruitment in Spain and the Philippines resulted in the appointment of an additional 103 nurses.”