NSW Health in talks with paramedics and nurses over Westpac rescue chopper dispute

WORKING IT OUT: Health officials have entered talks with paramedics and intensive care nurses after a disagreement over staffing on the Westpac rescue chopper.
WORKING IT OUT: Health officials have entered talks with paramedics and intensive care nurses after a disagreement over staffing on the Westpac rescue chopper.

AN end is in sight to a feud on the Westpac rescue helicopter with the paramedics’ union entering talks with senior health officials.

It comes after a series of Newcastle Herald reports exposing the tension between paramedics and John Hunter Hospital management who maintained its two-tier staffing model provided the best level of care for Hunter patients.

While the Health Services Union did not criticise the performance of intensive care nurses, it did claim lives were being put at risk when the helicopter is required to respond to emergencies, known as primary missions.

The HSU revealed several instances where the Belmont-based chopper was unable to respond to rescues in its own backyard because it was tasked to a patient transfer, which is crewed by nurses who use a different on-board configuration to paramedics.

Hunter New England Health said after Herald reporting on the issue last year it planned to “consult” with affected staff.

A spokeswoman confirmed the “a number of meetings” have since been held between NSW Health, NSW Ambulance and the hospital’s retrieval staff. 

The Herald also understands Health Minister Brad Hazzard became involved at one stage.

Another meeting has been set down for April 30 as an independent expert works on a new “guideline” that is hoped to end the feud. 

“Everyone involved has acknowledged and recognised the importance of the range of roles in retrieval services and are collectively working together on this issue,” the spokeswoman said.

“A working group including retrieval doctors, paramedics and nurses, with independent oversight from Dr Mark Elcock, an expert in Aeromedical Retrieval, is now working on producing a guideline to assist in the tasking of resources to retrievals in the Hunter New England region.”

A spokesman for the HSU said the union was going into the April 30 meeting with “an open mind”.

“While the Union will be going into the meeting with an open mind, it is essential that decisions must be based on the best outcome for patient care, and the most efficient use of the helicopter asset,” he said.

NSW Nurses and MIdwives’ Association assistant general secretary Judith Kiejda said the union pushed to maintain the doctor and nurse team

She said the system was “vital” for Hunter patients.

“For many decades, two retrieval teams have covered this region – a doctor/paramedic primary team and a doctor/nurse secondary team. Both teams can be deployed simultaneously to separate incidents, as both teams have a dedicated road vehicle and access to the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service,” Ms Kiejda said.

“We are confident the working group tasked with examining the principles of the service will agree continuation of the doctor/nurse retrieval team is vital.”

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