Prince Rupert’s hospital has been operating with a 20 per cent nursing shortage, reveals a report by B.C.’s auditor general.
“They’re working short staffed. They often are working overtime shifts for extended hours overtime. They often are suffering from physical burnout from the excessive workload that they’re under particularly when hospitals or facilities become overcapacity,” said Christine Sorensen, president of the BC Nurses’ Union.
Sorensen met with the senior leadership and CEO of the Northern Health Authority on Feb. 28 to discuss how to remedy the nursing shortage following the Feb. 22 release of the auditor general’s report on the recruitment and retention of rural and remote nurses in Northern B.C.
As of April 1, 2017, Northern Health was short 15 per cent, 121 positions, for its full-time equivalent registered nurses across the region, and more than a 20 per cent shortage in Prince Rupert, Terrace, Smithers, Upper Skeena, Nechako, Fort Nelson and Peace River North.
Why Prince Rupert is among one of the more affected regions is complex, said Sorensen, who listed off some of the challenges nurses face when they come to work on the North Coast: Housing is not always available, or cheap, and many of the nurses are new graduates who require mentorship.
“The expectation often for new graduate nurses to perhaps work beyond what they feel comfortable and capable of at that time because they haven’t necessarily consolidated all of their skills in the first few years,” Sorensen said.
As well, nurses who have been working in the system for a long time are overworked and tired.
“They’re exhausted, they’re burning out. We know our sick plan rates are increasing, our issues with long-term disability are increasing, and nurses are leaving and they’re saying that they’re done because they just can’t give anymore,” she said.
The auditor general’s report included a list of nine recommendations for Northern Health, including the creation of a more effective health human resource plan. Vice president of human resources with Northern Health, David Williams, said the recommendations are consistent with actions they’re already working on.
Williams said the report was based on April 1, 2017 numbers and since then Northern Health has narrowed the gap in Prince Rupert to a 15 per cent shortage, and an 11 per cent shortage across the region.
But Teri Forester, chair for the North West region for the BC Nurses’ Union said it hasn’t gotten that much better and there’s no way she can verify Northern Health’s numbers.
She wants to see more cross-training and more bodies supporting the work that nurses do. At Acropolis Manor, the residential care facility in Prince Rupert, there are three sections but only two licensed practical nurses (LPN) on a night shift for 60 patients.
“But at times, if there is a vacancy or some way they are unable to replace one of the two LPNs, at times, there’s only one LPN for the whole building,” Forester said. “With only one nurse to take care of those patients when that happens it jeopardizes the patients’ safety.”
For better recruiting, she wants childcare support for the nurses who return from maternity leave. Right now, she said some nurses can’t come back to work because they don’t have adequate childcare, and so they continue to be short staffed.
Northern Health is working with the BC Nurses’ Union to find options for better recruitment and retention.
“We are working hard to fill those positions and we continue to do so. We’ve had some good successes and we’ll strive to be more innovative,” Williams said.
One of the innovative plans Northern Health is exploring is a travel nurse program. The health authority will have a pool of nurses based in Prince George, where they have less challenges recruiting and retaining. These nurses will work half the time in Prince George and the other half of the time in rural areas where they have difficulty hiring relief positions, such as Prince Rupert.
But the challenges are complex, and won’t be solved overnight. When the union met with the health authority they discussed long-term, mid-term and short-term solutions. One of the suggestions is employing staff in hospital units and in residential care to alleviate some of the nurses’ duties, such as unit clerks, housekeeping and health care aids, who can help with bathing and toileting, etc.
“Right now, I think Northern Health needs to focus on nurses doing nursing work, and ensure that they’re safe,” Sorensen said.