Calls are mounting in the Maritimes for governments to address labor shortages in the health sector, as hospitals are forced to close emergency rooms now that tired staff take summer vacations to recover from the stress related to the pandemic.
In New Brunswick, health care workers are leaving the province due to poor working conditions, uncompetitive pay and unreasonable workload, according to liberal health critic Jean-Claude D’Amours.
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In Prince Edward Island, staff shortages are so acute at Western Hospital in Alberton that its emergency department may be forced to close if a person is sick, says Michele Beaton, a Green Party health critic. Difficulties in recruiting and retaining health care personnel have been mounting in the province for years, she said.
“We need a very specific strategic plan to ensure that people who work within the system are treated well,” Beaton said in a recent interview.
Last week, New Brunswick Health Minister Dorothy Shephard said the province was recruiting traveling nurses and encouraging retired nurses to re-enter the workforce to cover vacations.
Since April 1, Horizon Health Network, operator of New Brunswick’s English-speaking hospitals, has hired 11 retirees and about 180 nursing students to work this summer. Meanwhile, the Vitalite Health Network, operator of its French-speaking hospitals, has hired 200 nursing students.
“We recognize the challenges in our health care system’s workforce, and there are many long-term efforts underway to improve the situation,” New Brunswick Minister of Labor Trevor Holder said in a statement. “While we are making significant progress, it will take time to fully address these challenges.”
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Staffing shortages have led to intermittent overnight closures of some hospital emergency departments. The Horizon network posted a tweet on June 24, saying it was experiencing a critical staffing shortage and warned that patients with non-urgent medical issues could face long wait times.
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The tweet sparked a reaction on Twitter.
“It’s been like this for years and getting worse,” one person wrote. “I am afraid that if my illness got worse, I would not survive.” Another person said that the government needs to spend some of its budget surplus on improving working conditions in health centers.
Back in PEI, Beaton said the western part of the province “has basically no walk-in clinics, so people have no choice but to visit an emergency department.” When emergency rooms close, he said, “people will travel more than an hour to get to the next facility to get the care they need.”
Health PEI spokeswoman Jessica Bruce said Western Hospital’s small staff is working hard to avoid unplanned interruptions in service. “We continue to look at a variety of options to make sure patients get the care they need,” she said.
In Nova Scotia, nurses across the province have been demanding action to address chronic staffing shortages that they say have been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Nova Scotia Nurses Union says there are about 1,400 openings for registered nurses and 250 open places for licensed practical nurses.
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Nova Scotia’s Progressive Conservative government pledged during the election campaign to spend a lot of money on the province’s ailing healthcare system. The $13.2 billion budget for fiscal year 2022-23, introduced in March, contains $5.7 billion for health care, an increase of $413.4 million compared to last year’s spending. But Prime Minister Tim Houston warned residents not to expect quick changes.
Dr. Mark MacMillan, president of the New Brunswick Medical Society, said the growing number of job openings in health care in Canada is concerning.
“We’ve seen this human health resource issue come our way for years,” he said in a recent interview. “COVID-19 has certainly intensified that problem and exposed how fragile the health care system was in general, not just in New Brunswick but across the country.”
MacMillan said government action is needed now, but it will require a long-term solution.
“Five, 10, 15 years from now, what will be the patient demographics? What are the needs in this province? How many doctors do we need in North New Brunswick, South New Brunswick, East and West? How many nurses do we need per unit? We have to be more proactive,” she said.
Health sector staff members are tired and need a break from the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.
“The last two and a half years have been very stressful and we really have to make sure these doctors and nurses have time off for their own mental health,” she said.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on July 3, 2022.
NB struggles to fill vacant healthcare positions
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