Almost three quarters of nurses are confronted with staff shortages on their ward every day, a new survey has suggested.
Union leaders have said that the research shows the extent of “chronic understaffing across the NHS”.
Unison, Scotland’s largest health union, revealed 94% of nurses have experienced understaffing – with 72% saying this happened on a daily basis, while 22% described it as a weekly problem.
More than four fifths of nurses (81%) said the lack of staff has a negative impact on patient care on a “regular or frequent” basis.
Wilma Brown, who is chair of Unison Scotland’s health committee and a nurse, said: “The situation on the ground is desperate, there are just too few nurses to be able to do the job properly and staff are struggling to provide patients with the care they deserve.”
She added: “Ministers are failing in their duty of care to both patients and staff and we need urgent action to provide a long-term solution to this crisis.”
More than 1,100 nurses across Scotland took part in the Unison survey – but of these only 16% described the NHS system for recording instances of short staffing as being adequate, with 83% saying the Datix system is not an adequate tool for keeping track of staff levels.
Unison raised concerns that with so many incidents where wards are left short staffed not being reported, it was “impossible for the Scottish Government to have a handle on the scale of the staffing crisis”.
Ms Brown said: “This survey makes clear that NHS staff don’t have time to properly report the effect of chronic under-staffing across the NHS and the impact it is having on patients.
“It’s vital that staff can report the true picture, so NHS leaders can make the changes needed.”
However one nurse in NHS Ayrshire and Arran told Unison that reporting staff shortages was “pointless”, adding this was “a task that when you’re short you would rather not do as it achieves nothing, nothing changes”.
Another NHS worker said: “It’s a huge form that takes a lot of time to do when you’re already short staffed. It’s not good or useful.”
Another response from a nurse in West Lothian said they had been told there was “no point in putting in a Datix as they can’t magic up staff”.
Speaking about the impact of staff shortages, an NHS Ayrshire and Arran nurse said: “It’s stressful and sad working short with critically ill patients – you’re unable to give the care they should get.”
A midwife in NHS Tayside added that the “job has become unsafe due to staff to patient ratios”, adding that this meant “care is not delivered as it should be”.
Meanwhile a register nurse in the Lothian area said they were looking to leave critical care work after 20 years as they were “fed up of staffing shortfalls and patient care being compromised”.
The nurse told Unison: “I’m used to one-to-one nursing and I’m appalled that I can be sent to a ward to take charge of 12 patients.”
Matt McLaughlin, head of health for Unison in Scotland, said the survey results were “no surprise” but should be a “real wake-up call” for chief nursing officer Professor Alex McMahon.
He added: “Unison has been saying for years that the NHS incident reporting system is outdated and simply isn’t working.
“It’s impossible for the Scottish Government to have a handle on the scale of the staffing crisis when so many incidents are going unreported.
“Employers and government know that staff have neither time nor confidence in Datix and yet they continue to hide behind it.
“We need a system in place that records information in real time and most importantly is responded to in real time.
“This should serve as a real wake-up call for the chief nursing officer – we need less talk and more action.”
Health secretary Michael Matheson said: “We value the work of our nursing staff and are extremely grateful for the skill and dedication they have shown, particularly over the last few years.
“That’s why NHS Agenda for Change staff have received a pay deal worth more than £1 billion over the last two years – ensuring nurses in Scotland remain the best paid in the UK.
“We have also set up a Nursing and Midwifery Taskforce, which includes the RCN and RCM as well as recognised nursing and midwifery workforce experts, alongside academia, NHS and Scottish Government representatives.”
The MSP said it would “build on efforts to make Scotland the best place for nurses and midwives to come and work” by developing retention plans and will also look at recruitment.