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"Babies are going to die." Nurses are concerned about dangerously low staffing levels in maternity wards.

Maternity nurses and midwives have expressed concern about the welfare of babies and mothers due to understaffing in maternity wards.

Nurses and midwives spoke on Tuesday night’s A Current Affair, claiming that without change to staffing levels lives will be lost.

A special care nurse from Western Sydney’s Westmead Private Hospital told the show she fears daily that she will end up in a coroner’s court because a baby has died on her watch.

“I’m terrified,” she said.

“I’d be resuscitating a baby whilst looking after other babies who were unwell and needed care – babies can die, if you aren’t checking them regularly enough.”

When contracted by Mamamia, Dr Bernadette Eather, the national manager of clinical quality and patient safety for Ramsay Health Care, Australia’s largest private hospital operator and owner of Westmead Private, said there had been no obstetric national sentinel events – adverse patient safety events – at any Ramsay facility in the past two years.

The company regularly monitored and reported their patient outcomes and are above the national average for the two key obstetric indicators.

Dr Eather said Westmead has had a recent increase in births, which has led to the recruitment of 15 more midwives and two registered nurses. It is still recruiting.

“In allocating patients to nurses, it is much more complex than basing it simply on a number. We look at the patient’s condition and specific needs, and ensure we have the right level of care according to the patient’s needs.

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“Just as patients are not the same, nurses also are not the same.  We adopt a team approach, which takes into account the skill level of everyone on the team, because a newly registered nurse with very limited experience may not have the same level of knowledge as the nurse with 10 years of experience. In this way we ensure we have right level of nursing skill according the patient’s needs,” Dr Eather said.

She said Ramsay were disappointed by the nurse’s claims on A Current Affair and will launch an official investigation in order to understand her allegations.

Clinical midwifery specialist Renella Fairley works at public Nepean Hospital in Western Sydney and told A Current Affair nurse to patient ratios were a matter of life and death.

“Some shifts we walk out, my colleagues and myself – walking down to the carpark – sometimes we don’t even have to speak. We just look at each other and know that we’re all thinking ‘how did someone not die’ because that’s how severe it’s got at the moment,” she said.

Australia has no federal law for patient to staff ratios, though individual states including Queensland have begun to enforce their own laws.

NSW Nurses and Midwives Association general secretary Brett Holmes told the show a ratio of one midwife to three mothers – which means six patients, including babies – should be enforced in maternity wards.

In special care nurseries this should be one nurse to two babies and in neo-natal intensive care, it should be one nurse, one midwife, per baby, he said.

In a statement to Mamamia, a NSW Health spokesperson said staffing numbers are based on a number of factors and additional staff are rostered on when needed to manage unexpected activity and match the level of care required.

“Local Health Districts use a range of strategies to ensure the required staffing is provided across the whole of a maternity service.”

The spokesperson said Nepean Hospital had an average ratio of one staff member to 2.7 babies during the morning, with support from a midwifery unit manager, a lactation consultant and a clinical midwifery educator. Afternoons averaged 1:3 and nights 1:4.

“In neonatal intensive care and special care nurseries professional judgement of nurses and managers is used on a shift by shift basis to determine the correct staffing levels, taking into consideration the number of babies, their acuity and complexity.”

They also said NSW Health has added more than 16,000 health staff in the past seven years and the 2018/19 state budget will add a further 1370.

Watch the full A Current Affair episode here.

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