Staffing challenges for nurses in regional health care facilities in the Kootenays mirror the ongoing pressures facing the provincial health care system, according to a BC Nurses’ Union representative.
Adriane Gear, the vice-president of the BCNU, stopped in Cranbrook on Thursday (Aug. 18) as part of a listening tour to collect feedback from membership on how the crisis is affecting nursing and patient care and meet with elected officials.
Over the last two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated an already overburdened health care system.
“Our staffing situation has actually just deteriorated over the last year, and so nurses are in this situation where it’s not the odd day that they are working far below baseline — this has become a chronic situation that is only getting worse and nurses’ mental health is being severely impacted,” Gear said.
The nursing challenges in the East Kootenay are not unique.
While the East Kootenay Regional Hospital is located in Cranbrook, it serves as a regional facility, complementing services and resources in the Elk Valley, Columbia Valley and parts of the West Kootenay. However, smaller communities in those regions are increasingly experiencing diversions due to limited staffing availability.
A hospital in Creston went on diversion twice in the span of three weeks, while other facilities across Interior Health in places such as Ashcroft and Clearwater have had to do the same, albeit more frequently.
Meanwhile, Elkford’s emergency department has been closed since the end of last September.
“In a small community such as Creston, when their emergency services are on diversion, what that means is that people have to make the decision to drive at least an hour to seek medical care,” said Gear. “And what’s very concerning in that example, is that that emergency room is just going on diversion, it’s not actually closing.
“So there are at times, one nurse, maybe two, left in that facility to care for 16 patients and then also have to provide at least a level of first aid and guidance to people who are coming up in the front door.”
Gear cited another example where it’s not unusual for the Intensive Care Unit at EKRH to operate anywhere between 115-133 per cent over capacity.
Based on daily occupancy rate data provided by the Ministry of Health earlier this year, the ICU at EKRH was regularly at 100 per cent capacity last summer and into the early part of 2022 as the province grappled with the fourth COVID-19 wave.
However, that occupancy rate data is not reflective of staffing challenges.
While there is no quick fix to the crisis, Gear says there are a number of interim actions that can be taken, such as retaining the existing workforce by treating nurses with respect, and addressing workplace safety and conditions.
Earlier this year, the province also announced 602 new nursing seats at post-secondary schools, which included eight new seats at the College of the Rockies with the first intake last September.
Long-term, the staffing challenges are stark.
According to a BC Labour Market Outlook cited by Gear, the province will need more than 26,000 nurses by 2031. Couple that with a recent membership survey conducted by BCNU last year showing that 35 per cent of nurses are considering leaving the profession within the next two years, which rises to 51 per cent for nurses working in emergency departments or ICUs.
Or that some full-time nurses are considering moving to casual or part-time positions or choosing early retirement in response to worsening mental health and workplace challenges, Gear added.
“Nurses are not robots, we don’t have superpowers and we can no longer carry the burden of this health care crisis,” Gear said.
Longer term, Gear said the BCNU has been advocating for a health human resource strategy for years.
BC Liberal MLA Tom Shypitka, who represents the riding of Kootenay East, also met with Gear on Thursday to hear feedback on the current challenges.
Both Gear and Shypitka noted that frontline nurses can’t publicly speak out about their experiences.
“Nurses can’t speak out…they’ve essentially got gag orders on them from Interior Health or the Ministry [of Health],” Shypitka said. “I’ve had conversations, confidential conversations with nurses and I’ll tell you, not one of those conversations that I’ve been in doesn’t include a lot of crying and frustration. They are heavy, heavy, heavy conversations.”
Calling back to Premier John Horgan’s own admission that the health care system is “crumbling,” Shypitka faulted the NDP government for not taking enough action in response to the crisis.
In addition, Shypitka suggested measures such as finding ways to safely bring nurses who refused the COVID-19 vaccine back on board, or developing a more streamlined process for out-of-province nurses to get accredited in B.C.
“I talked to one nurse who has 20 years in Alberta, and she’s trying to get accredited in B.C. and it’s so onerous that she just said ‘screw it’,” Shypitka noted.
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