NB government, UNB expand nursing programs, as hospitals continue to deal with ‘critical staff shortages’

Speaking directly to a handful of nursing students, Health Minister Dorothy Shephard asked them to consider accepting a job in New Brunswick once they’ve graduated.

“I’m sure that you’re reading the news and many have some trepidation about what you may find when you enter the workforce,” she said. “We want you to stay and most of all, we want your young faces and your new ideas in our hospitals making a difference in patient care.”

There are 1,300 vacant nursing positions across the province, and with 700 healthcare workers currently off because of COVID-19 – it’s caused a lot of pressure on frontline workers.

Shephard made the comments as the province announced $1.5 million for the University of New Brunswick to expand its master of nursing-nurse practitioner program from 10 seats to 20.

The school will also add a specialized training course on mental health for nursing undergrads.

“Students in our schools, the isolation that has occurred for the elderly and all facets of our lives – there have been challenges that are new,” said Lorna Butler, Dean of Nursing at UNB’s Fredericton campus.

Paula Doucet, president of the NB Nurses Union, says anytime nursing programs are expanded is positive – but the healthcare system is experiencing a severe shortage now.

“Here we are in the middle of the storm trying to find out way clear,” she said. “Yes, this is something for the future. However, it will not alleviate the stressors of the workload that nurses are feeling right now on the frontlines. I’m just hoping that as we move into summer months that these nurses have been holding our system together for more than the last two years, will actually have some time to recoup, rest and rejuvenate because this is what they desperately need right now is that break.”

Horizon Health Network posted on social media that its Dr. Everett Chalmers Hospital in Fredericton was “experiencing critical staff shortages” on Wednesday.

“Priority will be given to trauma & critical care patients. Patients with non-urgent medical issues may experience long wait-times,” it said.

Shephard said there is ongoing work to try and alleviate the pressures, on the short term, but that it’s up to the Regional Health Authorities to make those decisions.

“The RHA’s are tasked with making sure that they can move their resources around as they need to in order to fill those gaps. It doesn’t mean it makes it easy. It means that right now we’re, our frontline workers are challenged and they need our support,” she said.

“It will be about making decisions about whether management is pulled into care and helping with those kinds of initiatives that help to resolve some of those short-term issues. But we know before COVID that we were challenged with our frontline workforce and our health resource workforce and so – while announcements like this today, while don’t have an immediate impact, we can’t not do them – we have to give nurses an opportunity to know that it’s going to get better.”

Horizon Health was unavailable to comment Thursday on the staffing situation.

The expansion of the nurse practitioner program will begin fall of 2023, while the new mental health training will start in September.

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