There are concerns that the number of Intensive Care Unit beds has been reduced at Tasmania’s main hospital and fewer serious elective surgeries will be performed.

A Health Department memo states that from May 10 the Royal Hobart Hospital’s staffed capacity for the ICU will be 12 beds.

The High Dependency Unit will operate with four beds.

Unions say there has been a reduction in the number of beds because of a shortage of specialist nurses.

“It’s terrible … it’s a huge concern and should be a huge concern to the community,” the state secretary of the Health and Community Services Union, Tim Jacobson, said.

Mr Jacobson said nurses who staff the unit had been stretched to the limit.

“We do know staff have been working quite significant amounts of double shifts over recent times and that clearly is having an impact on the ability of staff to continue to work under those circumstances,” he said.

Heavy workload unsustainable 

A RHH staff member who wanted to remain anonymous said earlier in the week that it was “chaos in the theatre recovery department today with two ICU patients being looked after by two recovery nurses, which means that we are two staff short to care for patients coming out of operations”.

Hospital nurses feel the government is failing to address the issues.(

ABC News: Mitchell Woolnough


The Tasmanian branch secretary of the Australian Nurses and Midwifery Federation, Emily Shepherd, said it was challenging to recruit skilled ICU nurses.

She said the workload had meant some experienced nurses had left the unit.

“We do have an aging nursing and midwifery workforce and it is incredibly difficult when the rest of Australia and the world are now faced with a shortage of nurses and midwives and even more so in speciality areas,” she said.

She said there were also concerns about the workplace culture within the ICU.

“And obviously then being fearful about being able to continue that in the longer term as a strategy.

“They do feel there is a lack of support or intent by the Tasmanian Health Service and indeed the government to address these issues in a comprehensive way.”

The chairman of the Medical Staff Association at the Royal Hobart Hospital, Frank Nicklason, fears the problem may only get worse.

Dr Frank Nicklason
Frank Nicklason says the staffing shortage is a slow burn that has come to a crisis.(

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The memo also states that elective surgery bookings will be revised to one cardiac surgery procedure a day and no more than two High Dependency Unit (or one ICU) elective bookings a day.

“[For] Tasmanians … waiting for elective surgery, this news today won’t provide them with any confidence at all that they will have access to that surgery any time soon,” Mr Jacobson said.

Dr Nicklason said the elective surgery cutbacks had been put in place in order to keep ICU beds available for emergency patients.

He said the reduction in ICU beds would have an impact across the whole hospital and could lead to bed block.

“People can’t be quickly moved in a timely manner from the Emergency Department to ICU when that is necessary, so it just puts stress across the hospital,” he said.

Change needed to address shortage

The ANMF is calling for long-overdue action, including freeing up experienced nurses from their patient loads to help more junior staff develop specialised skills.

“The skill mix is absolutely integral to the safety for patients and staff in the intensive care unit and if that skill mix isn’t right, it does pose significant safety concerns,” Ms Shepherd said.

“We need to certainly look at the wages that nurses are paid and the conditions they work in,” Dr Nicklason said.

Unions admit it will be a difficult problem to fix.

“Other states are providing better wages and conditions and better work environments — clearly people won’t come to Tasmania,” Mr Jacobson said.

“We’ve got a system that has been neglected for too long. Governments over the last 10 years have failed to address the increase in demand and here we are today.”

Kathrine Morgan-Wicks poses for the camera.
Kathrine Morgan-Wicks, the secretary of Department of Health, says the RHH intends to train more ICU nurses locally.(



The secretary of the Department of Health, Kathrine Morgan-Wicks, said in a statement there had been no reduction in ICU beds.

“All patients requiring critical care at the RHH are receiving the required care,” she said.

Ms Morgan-Wicks said the Department of Critical Care Medicine (DCCM) at the RHH had 18 beds for a mixture of intensive care and high-dependency patients.

“This is an increase from 14 beds in 2014–15.”

She said as of Wednesday afternoon, the DCCM had 17 intensive care patients and no high-dependency patients, with one bed not occupied.

The department said recruitment for additional staff was currently underway, including an RHH program to train more ICU nurses locally.

She said cardiac elective surgery rates are managed according to available DCCM beds and are also outsourced to private hospitals on an ongoing basis to ensure elective surgeries continued to be delivered.


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