Staff shortages in theatres at Sheffield's Northern General Hospital 'putting lives at risk'

Patients’ lives are being put at risk because of staff shortages in operating theatres at Sheffield’s Northern General Hospital, a whistleblower has alleged.

Wednesday, 15th January 2020, 5:00 pm
Updated Monday, 20th January 2020, 11:51 am

The whistleblower, who has asked to remain anonymous, says operations at the hospital are routinely being done with too few nurses present, and that the staff that are there often have too little experience.

Hospital bosses, however, said patient safety was always of paramount importance in determining whether surgeries take place, and that without the approval of the surgeon responsible, operations do not go ahead.

And trades’ union representatives confirmed staff shortages were a problem at Northern General Hospital, but said no concerns had been raised with them about the situation in theatres.

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Northern General Hospital.

The whistleblower, who is a theatre nurse at the hospital, said: “The NICE guidelines state a theatre should run on four staff. Most days we run on three staff which is not safe.

“Management do claim the Operating Department Practitioners - ODPs - make up the fourth member of staff. However, the ODPs are often out of the theatre preparing the anesthetic room for the next patient, thus leaving the theatre with three staff and in some cases two if one staff member takes a break.

“This is very dangerous practice and my fellow nurses agree that nothing will be done until a very serious near miss or death.

“Poor skill mixes in theatres also compromises patient safety. Lists are often running with very inexperienced or new staff without skills or knowledge.

“Again this compromises patient safety but management refuse to cancel operations and are happy to run theatres dangerously on three staff.”

John Campbell, Unison’s staff side chair for Sheffield Teaching Hospitals, said he had not heard of concerns about staff shortages in theatres, but was aware of problems in other departments.

“We are aware of staff shortages - not specifically in theatres but across the board,” he said.

“In order to make sure patients are not put at risk they are taking staff from non-ward related areas. Some of these staff may not have worked on wards for 20 or 30 years - yet they are asking them to work on wards which they have no experience of.

“Unison have argued against that because we think it is putting patients, staff and colleagues at risk and potentially nurses could be putting their registration at risk.

“We have raised this with the trust and been given assurances that training in terms of competencies are going to be put in place before staff are asked to move.

“Staff who may have worked in theatres for 20 or 30 years are being asked to work on wards and it is not fair.”

A spokesperson for Sheffield Teaching Hospitals said they did sometimes ask staff in less busy areas if they will work in busier areas at times of increased demand.

They added, however, that this is only done after ‘careful consideration’ of the skills needed in the area the member of staff is being asked to move to, and of the impact it might have on their normal ward or department.

Discussions also take place with staff to explain why they were being asked to support another area, and if there were valid reasons why they could not do this, they would take this into account.

But the safety of patients, they added, would always be their priority in any decisions made.

In terms of theatre staff, Dr David Hughes, medical director at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals, said their surgeons had the final word on whether operations go ahead, and if they were not content with the staff designated to support them, then the operation would not go ahead.

He said: “Patient safety comes first at all times and we would never knowingly carry out an operation without the appropriately skilled staff present.

“There are not NICE guidelines but there is Association for Perioperative Practice (AFPP) guidance which sets out the number and type of staff needed for different types of operating lists and the complexity of the planned surgery.

“The number and type of staff differs based on these factors. We follow these guidelines as routine practice. We also plan for the winter many months in advance and our plans this year did not include moving theatre staff to work on wards.

“Our priority is always to do the right thing for patients but we are also very mindful of how hard our staff work and so if anyone has concerns, we would hope they would raise them with us directly even if that was anonymously. We can then clarify the facts or if needed address those concerns.”