ACT Health to look overseas to stem mental health nurse shortages

The ACT government is looking overseas to fill nursing and doctor shortages in the territory's mental health sector.

A workforce committee has been established with the task of developing an action plan for national and international recruitment of nurses and senior medical staff to make sure there is "adequate supply" of staff throughout the year.

Canberra Hospital. Photo: Elesa Kurtz

Canberra Hospital. Photo: Elesa Kurtz

Figures released last Wednesday by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare show the ACT had the lowest ratio of mental health nurses in the country.

They show the ACT was far behind all other states and territories in the number of hours worked by mental health nurses.

The move to address the issue came in response to a recommendation from an independent review by Victoria's NorthWestern Mental Health of mental health inpatient services in the ACT, commissioned after Canberra Hospital's disastrous interim accreditation results earlier this year.

The government accepted all 11 of the review's recommendations and, as of October 18, had completed four of them.

The review suggested Health start a "sustained program of national and/or international recruitment for nurses and senior medical staff".

"If recruiting nurses from overseas [the department] should preference nurses with specialist mental health qualifications," the report read.

The report pointed to ACT Mental Health Services' struggle to attract and keep suitably qualified candidates.

"In the experience of the reviewers, training and retaining skilled psychiatrists is a recurring difficulty for Australian public mental health services, and underscores the value of developing national and international recruitment strategies," the report said.

The report found Mental Health Services' investigations after five suicides over an 18-month period were unreasonably long, averaging 167 days.

Among the other recommendations were calls for an increased number of specialist mental health nurses and work to improve safety of patients and staff.

The report also recommended installing CCTV in the adult mental heath unit at Canberra Hospital in areas like reception, the lounge and courtyards.

"With a total footprint of approximately 7,800 square metres the [adult mental health unit] is an extensive area to monitor and retain vigilance of internal and external activities," the report said.

"In addition, CCTV cameras serve to deter malicious property damage and occupational violence and CCTV cameras greatly assist the investigation of critical incidents. [They] also support the prosecution of individuals who engage in malicious property damage and interpersonal violence."

The report also pointed to steps taken by NorthWestern Mental Health that successfully improved staff and patient safety from violence, including saliva drug-testing kits, use of drug-detector dogs and lapel cameras for security officers responding to code events.

The report also recommended removing soap dispensers at Canberra Hospital and signage at the Dhulwa unit because they both acted as ligature risks.

As of October 18, Health had not removed the soap dispensers as a new supplier had not been chosen.

The report also said Mental Health Services should increase the percentage and number of nursing staff with specialist mental health qualifications.

It said this would help make sure there was the right balance between attending to ligature safety risks in infrastructure and lessening the risk of patients deliberately self-harming through increased therapeutic care.

Mental Health Services agreed to review the number of current mental health postgraduate nurses and develop a plan to increase numbers.