Saturday, June 3, 2023

Healthcare workers need homes

The government has spent north of €2 billion on the new National Children’s Hospital – staffing it requires ensuring healthcare workers have access to affordable homes

You can buy a lot of things with €2.4 billion. For the cost of building the new National Children’s Hospital, the government could have picked up a Premier League football team (€1.5 billion), a superyacht (€500 million), and still had money left over for Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, the most expensive painting in the world (€400 million).

Not a bad haul.

But imagine for a moment if, after spending all that money, the football team didn’t have enough players, the yacht had no engine, and the painting was locked away in a vault somewhere, completely out of view.

The equivalent is about to happen once the National Children’s Hospital is completed.

As things stand, prospective staff won’t be able to find anywhere to live, making it next to impossible to hire the 5,000-odd doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers required to actually look after patients.

An ongoing dispute
Healthcare workers saw this problem coming some time ago.

In November 2022, INMO General Secretary Phil Ní Sheaghdha appeared on Newstalk, telling Pat Kenny that a lack of suitable accommodation is having ‘a hugely negative impact on our ability to retain nurses and midwives not just in Dublin but in other cities’.

Ní Sheaghdha further explained in a statement issued by the INMO in April that it is unlikely the new National Children’s Hospital will be adequately staffed, because Dublin is simply too expensive to live in – with an acute lack of available accommodation.

Her words were no surprise to anyone who has experience navigating the rental market.

Average rents in Ireland have shot up by 82 per cent in the last 12 years, the third highest increase in the European Union. According to the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar – whose party Fine Gael held the levers of power for those 12 years – Ireland is currently short of about 250,000 homes.

Many of the healthcare workers fortunate enough to find somewhere to live often face extremely long commutes.

“Affordable accommodation near healthcare settings should not be a pipe-dream for nurses and midwives who work long hours,” Ni Sheaghdha said, in the April INMO statement. “Immediate provision and supports must be made to allow these essential workers to live within a reasonable distance of their place of work.”

We’ve tried nothing and we’re all out of ideas
Earlier this month, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly ruled out providing subsidised accommodation for healthcare workers, following calls by the INMO to help address ongoing housing issues for the healthcare sector.

“There are no plans for that at this time,” Donnelly said. “What the government is focused on is continuing to build new houses, affordable houses, social houses, owner-occupied houses, at record levels.”

The solution to housing issues faced by the healthcare sector, the Minster continued, is the same as the solution to housing issues faced by other sectors. In other words: healthcare workers too must navigate Ireland’s completely dysfunctional market, which is currently filled with record-low levels of accommodation.

At the time of writing, there are 40-odd properties for rent in Dublin 8, the location of the new National Children’s Hospital, on The cheapest of these appears to be a studio on Blackhorse Avenue, for €1,080 a month.

A burned-out workforce
As readers of IMT will know very well, Interns and Senior House Doctors are required to change jobs every six months, often to different counties, making them particularly vulnerable to housing precarity.

Adding to their difficulties are payment issues associated with moving hospitals. Junior doctors often find themselves working under the wrong tax code, meaning their full wages don’t come through when needed, often to pay exorbitant rental costs.

Meanwhile, housing issues faced by patients continued to pile pressure on hospitals, particularly EDs.

In January, levels of homelessness across the country hit a record high, with 11,754 people living in emergency accommodation. People in precarious living situations are less likely to seek medical attention until there is an emergency. That’s more work for doctors and worse patient outcomes.

All of this is contributing to the high levels of burnout seen across the healthcare sector.

Data published last year by the Practitioner Health Matters Programme (PHMP) found that stress, anxiety, and burnout among healthcare workers had increased for the third year running in 2022. A majority of those who presented to the PHMP, which provides mental health services for healthcare workers, were doctors.

Speaking to a meeting of the Oireachtas Health Committee last December, HSE CEO Stephen Mulvaney said the HSE is willing to play ‘whatever role is appropriate’ in securing accommodation for healthcare workers.

It’s time those in charge realised that their appropriate role is taking meaningful action to ensure hospital staff have somewhere affordable to life.

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