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There are 382 vacancies at Te Whatu Ora Hauora a Toi Bay of Plenty as health worker shortages continue to plague the country.
But a district representative says the figures are only “approximate” and data comparing the number of vacancies to previous years was not “easily retrievable”, requiring significant research for a “workforce under pressure”.
A Bay of Plenty MP says the number of vacancies showed the health system was “falling apart at the seams” and comparative data should be a “front-of-mind metric for management”.
Data obtained by the Bay of Plenty Times through an Official Information Act request showed there were 382 full-time equivalent vacancies at Te Whatu Ora Hauora a Toi Bay of Plenty.
That included 177 nursing vacancies and 118 allied health worker, professional and technical staff vacancies.
But the district’s senior governance and quality adviser, Debbie Brown, said the data “should be considered only approximate” due to “ongoing anomalies”.
Brown said the numbers were “likely to overstate the true vacancy level”.
Te Whatu Ora Hauora a Toi Bay of Plenty declined the Bay of Plenty Times’ request for a comparison of current vacancies to the total vacancies at the end of 2019 and 2018.
“This information is not held in an easily retrievable data system,” she said.
According to the former Bay of Plenty District Health Board’s annual reports for the financial years, 2018 to 2021, the turnover or resignation rate in the district has risen.
In the 2017/2018 financial year, the DHB hired 587 people in total and had a turnover rate of 8.82 per cent.
By the 2020/2021 financial year, the DHB hired 783 people and the turnover rate had also risen to 11 per cent.
There was no annual report available for the financial year 2021/2022 at the time this article was published.
Bay of Plenty MP Todd Muller said he was shocked Te Whatu Ora Bay of Plenty was unable to provide the total number of vacancies for previous years.
In his opinion: “What year are we living in? That should be core data. The number of vacancies should be a front-of-mind metric for management.”
Muller said he believed the 382 vacancies showed the Tauranga health system was not able to give local residents the care they need.
“It’s falling apart at the seams,” he told the Bay of Plenty Times.
“Almost every week we’re getting data about waitlists. And this in an environment where we are about 4000 nurses short nationwide.”
Referencing a letter signed by 30 senior specialists at the then-Bay of Plenty District Health Board, Muller said he felt sorry for health workers who were having to leave the profession they loved because they were too stressed by the demands created by worker shortages.
“That’s not just the case in our local district but across the country.”
New Zealand Nurses Organisation kaiwhakahaere Kerri Nuku said 382 was “definitely a high number of vacancies”, which reflected the pressures facing the industry.
Nuku also said the union believed more than the quoted 177 nurses were “absolutely” needed.
“We don’t know if this is the absolute minimum benchmark. From where we sit, we would definitely say that looks light.”
Nuku said recruitment was difficult but the safety of both nurses and their patients needed to meet the highest standards.
She said, in her view, it sounded “extremely unusual” that Te Whatu Ora Hauora a Toi Bay of Plenty had declined to provide vacancy numbers for previous years.
“Given that we’ve seen the move from DHBs to Te Whatu Ora it would seem that those figures should be transferable to understand the capability of the workforce to respond to community need.”
Nuku said an acuity tool was needed to have workforce numbers at the fingertips as the workforce was the most fundamental aspect of the health system.
In response to Muller and Nuku, Te Whatu Ora Hauora a Toi interim district director Pete Chandler said the organisation was aware of concerns around the workforce.
“Our teams are doing the most tremendous job in the face of one of the most challenging global health workforce shortages experienced,” he said.
“This shortage is taking place at the same time as we are seeing a significant growth in demand for our services locally.”
In relation to vacancy data, Chandler said individual service groups, including wards and departments, knew their exact number of vacancy positions, from which recruitment is triggered.
“However, the aggregated data for an organisation of this size is more complicated because it includes elements such as new positions being added, some of which are phased during the year.
“Also, the historic ‘workforce required’ reporting comprised more than simple headcount – for example, overtime and fixed-term cover.
“It is a constantly changing mix of people leaving and starting and so vacancy numbers move significantly during the year.”
Chandler said the organisation would continue its efforts to fill vacancies and do its best to support staff wellbeing “at a time of immense pressure on them”.
Association of Salaried Medical Specialists Toi Mata Hauora executive director, Sarah Dalton, said the number of vacancies in the district was “significant and a concern”.
“We find that getting accurate and timely workforce data from any of the districts remains difficult and we are pushing hard to see this improved nationally.”
Allied Health Aotearoa New Zealand co-chairwoman and Physiotherapy New Zealand chief executive Sandra Kirby said vacancy rates were high nationally.
Kirby said allied health professionals leaving New Zealand to work overseas, immigration changes and an undervaluing of the allied health workforce were some factors that contributed to the situation.
“We know the gaps in staffing are adding stress to the existing workforce.
“Our greatest concern is the impact on the health and wellbeing of New Zealanders due to lack of access to effective treatment.”
The data was provided on October 27 in response to a request made by the Bay of Plenty Times under the Official Information Act on August 25, more than two months beforehand.
Requests made under the Act normally come with a required deadline of 20 working days.
On September 29, the Bay of Plenty Times was told via email: “Our current systems do not allow us to accurately report our vacancies. To be able to respond to your query would require significant research and collation for a workforce under pressure.”
When asked what information the district’s vacancy reporting inaccurately represented, another email written by a spokesperson said: “The recruitment module reporting overstates the current level of staffing gaps in the workforce.”
According to the spokesperson’s email, the district’s current recruitment module included vacancies that had already been filled, “future focused recruitments” such as roles starting in January 2023 and vacancies covering multiple roles.
“We are in the process of auditing the recruitment module to remove listed roles that are not reflective of gaps in the workforce.”
The email also stated the district’s ability to recruit and fill roles was “not significantly affected by the shortcomings in the recruitment module”.
“The ability to recruit and fill roles is primarily impacted by availability of suitable candidates within the New Zealand market, competition for candidates from both national and international agencies and reduced levels of overseas health professionals.”
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Meanwhile, the neighbouring Te Whatu Ora Lakes district was able to respond in full to the same requests for information before the 20-working-day Official Information Act deadline.
Te Whatu Ora Lakes also provided staff vacancy data for the past four years.
A comparison of total vacancies over time at Te Whatu Ora Lakes showed the number of vacancies in the district had quadrupled from 42 in 2019 to 172 in 2022.