‘Everyone should be concerned about this’: Union sounds alarm about shortage of ICU nurses

They have helped care for the most critically ill patients in the province, but the BC Nurses’ Union is now sounding the alarm about a shortage of nurses working in intensive care. While the province recently increased spaces for training new nurses, the union said there’s more that could be done in the interim.

BCNU vice-president Adriane Gear said while the pressure and workload on all nurses is “horrible” right now, specialized areas like the ICU have been hit especially hard during the pandemic.

“I couldn’t say exactly how many nurses short we are in that area because there hasn’t been transparency with sharing that data,” she said. “What we know is there are multiple vacancies.”

Gear said the nursing shortage predates the pandemic, and not just in intensive care, but COVID-19 has put more pressure on an already strained system.

“An ICU nurse would typically be taking care of one patient,” she said. “It’s not uncommon for nurses to be caring for two, three, or more patients, and so certainly the situation has exacerbated during the pandemic.”

Gear said shortages in the ICU are especially challenging because special training is required to work in the unit. She said nurses face excessive overtime and an inability to take time off, along with the moral distress that accompanies an overwhelming workload.

“These nurses are at a breaking point,” she said. “Everyone should be concerned about this.”

Gear said in a recent survey conducted by the union, 51 per cent of nurses in intensive care units and emergency departments were thinking about leaving. She added there are steps that could be taken to alleviate some of the pressure in the meantime, including helping internationally educated nurses to practice in BC, and hiring other workers to take care of non-nursing related tasks.

“Nurses are exhausted. They’re burnt out. They need better mental health supports,” she said. “We’re not heroes. Nurses are humans.”

Last month, the province announced the addition of 602 more spaces to train new nurses, including 362 registered nursing seats.

The nursing school at the University of British Columbia has seen applications rise during the pandemic.

The school’s director, Elizabeth Saewyc, said there was a 30 per cent increase in applications last year, and this year it’s also looking to be about 20 to 25 per cent higher. She noted a number of applicants referenced the pandemic as part of what motivated them to pursue nursing.

At the same time, the school’s fall intake has been expanded by 25 per cent, to 150 students.

“This is a good thing, but its not a quick thing in terms of responding to the shortage,” Saewyc said. “Beyond graduating new nurses, a really key thing is retaining the nurses we graduate.”

Saewyc said part of making the profession sustainable is paying attention to patient-nurse ratio, offering flexibility in the type of employment available, and providing mental health support.

“The intensity of the work is such that if the work environment isn’t supportive, people are going to leave,” she said. “A certain number of those who graduate actually leave the nursing profession within just a few years.”

Saewyc added when it comes to training for new nurses, there is also a shortage of nursing faculty.

CTV News requested an interview with Health Minister Adrian Dix on Wednesday, but was told he wasn’t available. Earlier in the week, Dix said a 10-year health human resource strategy was in the works for the province and would be released soon.

Gear said a health resource plan is something the union has been calling for for years.

“Certainly we’ve not been consulted on one,” she said. “If it is in the works, that’s great news.”

She added the new nursing spaces announced are appreciated, but are a “drop in the bucket” compared to what’s needed.

“We need to recruit new nurses,” she said. “But we need to make the effort to retain the ones that we have before they’re lost from the system all together.”

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