‘Unprecedented’ hospital staff strain could peak soon: Ontario health executive

Ontario hospitals are experiencing staffing shortages at an “unprecedented” level, says an executive at the provincial agency that oversees them, but the situation may improve in coming weeks as the seventh wave of COVID-19 recedes.

“It’s really not a new problem, but its persistence and severity are unprecedented,” said Dr. Chris Simpson, executive vice president of Ontario Health, of the staffing shortage that has led to service reductions and temporary ward closures. emergency. in recent weeks.

Ten hospitals have had to temporarily close emergency departments since June due to a lack of nursing services, according to Ontario Health. The closures continue this weekend, with hospitals in Clinton and St. Marys planning to close emergency rooms for a period of time on Saturday.

The system has always had trouble staffing remote areas, Simpson said, but the problem has now spread to medium and large community hospitals and some teaching hospitals.

Like many health care advocates and worker groups, Simpson noted that staffing shortages are particularly acute among nurses, many of whom have left the field due to retirement and exhaustion after more than two years of a charge. of exhausting work due to the pandemic.

COVID-19-related absences have also significantly affected operations, Simpson said, with “a couple of thousand” workers currently furloughed due to the virus.

Simpson said he is optimistic staffing shortages could peak in the coming weeks as the current wave of COVID-19 recedes, allowing more people to return to work and fewer virus patients requiring care. .

“I’m pretty optimistic … that by September we should be looking better from a personnel standpoint than we are today,” he said.

However, there may be challenges ahead in the fall, including a possible eighth wave of infections, and Simpson said solutions are being discussed to quickly attract more workers.

One of the top priorities is removing the barriers that keep internationally trained health professionals out of the workforce, he said.

On Thursday, Ontario’s health minister gave the regulatory colleges of nursing and medicine two weeks to develop plans to more quickly register internationally educated professionals.

Simpson also said it’s difficult for hospitals to share nursing staff because they are employed by individual hospitals. He said a “provincial workforce” is something to consider that could mitigate future damage in similarly limited staffing situations.

A Statistics Canada workforce report released Friday included data on nurses and the health care worker shortage, finding that more than one in five nurses worked paid overtime in July, the highest level since the data was released. Comparable data were available in 1997. By comparison, about 10 percent of all other employees worked overtime in July.

Unions representing hospital workers on Friday shared a list of steps they proposed the government should take to address the situation.

Measures include more safety and mental health supports for staff, more financial incentives to help with retention and hiring, and more post-secondary options for health jobs.

They also called again on the province to raise wages and scrap a wage cap bill.

Prime Minister Doug Ford indicated this week that no more raises were to come, pointing to a retention bonus announced earlier this year for nurses.

Union leaders said the issue of appropriate incentives should be discussed with the government in meetings with the workers themselves, saying such discussions should take place as soon as possible.

“The fact is we have a lot of people in a position to retire and we really can’t afford to let them go,” said Michael Hurley, president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions. “We have to have this discussion.”

A spokesman for Health Minister Sylvia Jones said in an email that she had already recently met with the unions.

Stephen Warner noted the efforts the government has already made to recruit more workers, speed up the registration of internationally trained staff, and pointed to the mental health services available to health workers.

“We know more work needs to be done and we continue to work with all partners, including Ontario Health and the 140 public hospital corporations, regulatory colleges and health sector unions, to address any challenges on the ground,” he said.

Meanwhile, Simpson stressed that Ontarians shouldn’t be kept away from emergency rooms because of concerns about the staffing situation.

“If you are sick, please come see us,” he said. “Don’t sacrifice your health.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on August 8, 2022.

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