Nurses’ union calls on federal government to take lead in addressing nursing shortages

TORONTO — The national union representing nurses in Canada ­is calling on the federal government to take a leadership role in combatting the ongoing nursing shortages across the country.

Registered nurse Linda Silas, who is president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions (CFNU), wants the feds to gather data and undertake strategic nationwide planning initiatives to help provinces and health-care providers alleviate their staffing shortages.

“We need to gather all the intelligence and the data to make better decisions,” Silas told CTVNews.ca over the phone on Wednesday.

“What the federal government needs to do is to bring it up to a level to give the tools to the provinces and territories to make the appropriate decision.”

Silas says that many hospitals and provinces, which have mostly focused on the “day-to-day” operation of the health-care system, struggle to find the resources to investigate new staffing models and other pilot projects that could help reduce some of the nursing shortages.

“When we talk about doing a pilot project or implementing a new way of staffing, they panic, because they don’t have the extra people power to be able to implement these new strategies, even if they know that in the long run, it would be beneficial,” she said.

Nurses across the country are at a breaking point, unions say. The federation says that a national survey found that over 90 per cent of nurses reported symptoms of burnout. In addition, nurses’ average weekly overtime hours have increased by 78 per cent as a result of the pandemic.

“Everyone I meet knows a nurse that either has quit or will be quitting in the next few months after the pandemic,” said Silas.

Statistics Canada also reported in June that registered nurses, nurse aides and nurse practitioners were the three occupations with the highest year-over-year increase in vacancies in the first quarter of 2021. Nearly half of these positions have been vacant for 90 days or more. Total vacancies in the health care and social assistance sector increased by 39 per cent.

The nursing shortages date back well before the pandemic. Silas says the issues started to arise in 2008 after the global recession.

“All actions around planning, recruiting and retaining health-care workers kind of fell off, and we haven’t been able to bring it back to life,” she said.

Some of the solutions that ought to be investigated include mentorship programs for young nurses starting their careers, retention programs for nurses close to retirement and improvements for rural and remote health care systems, Silas believes. She also says that there are very few accelerated university programs in nursing and almost no nurse bridging programs, which would allow a registered nurse to become a nurse practitioner.

“All of those initiatives could be (studied by) a health workforce agency by the federal government,” she said.

HOW THE FEDERAL PARTIES COMPARE

The federation also reviewed the platforms of four of the federal parties ahead of next Monday’s election.

No party received a perfect score. The NDP received 3.5 out of 5 — the highest score out of the four. The party wants to do strategic planning to investigate how to tackle health-care staffing shortages, something that the CFNU is proposing, and has also promised a $250 million fund to hire more nurses.

The Liberals have proposed an even bigger $3.2 billion fund for provinces and territories to hire family doctors and nurses. However, Silas says the plan is lacking details and doesn’t propose any planning initiatives. The party received a score of 2.5.

“We don’t know how many (nurses). It’s a shot in the dark,” she said.

The Green Party received a score of 1.5. The CFNU says the Green platform doesn’t propose any specific measures for nurses. The Conservative Party platform also makes no mention of any plans to hire more nurses, and received the lowest score of 0.5 out of 5.

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