Arnprior nurses worried about burnout and patient care after cuts

Nurses at an Ottawa area hospital says burnout due to understaffing could be putting patient care at risk.

Nurses association says 3 full-time RNs cut at hospital in the past year, as patient load grows

Around two dozen people rallied outside the Arnprior and District Regional Hospital on Tuesday to protest staffing cuts and burnout, which they say could affect patient care. (Kimberley Molina/CBC)

Nurses at an Ottawa area hospital says burnout due to understaffing could be putting patients at risk.

A couple dozen people protested outside the Arnprior & District Regional  Hospital Tuesday afternoon, carrying signs that said "cuts don't heal" and "increased workload = increased risk to patients." Those protesting said they're often worried to take vacation or call in sick, because there isn't enough staff to replace them.

"Some of the patients may feel they're still getting great care, but that's on our backs. That's because we're working like dogs to maintain this level of care and we're starting to burn out," sad Blaine Davidson, a registered nurse at the hospital, adding morale has been low in recent months.

Nurses are scared for their patients' safety, along with their own well being and their licences, said Patrick Garbutt, who works in housekeeping at the hospital and heads one of the hospital's unions.

The hospital sets a 5:1 patient to nurse ratio — based on a 72-per-cent occupancy rate — but Garbutt said that doesn't take into account the complexity and variation of patient needs or a fluctuation in the number of beds, such as during this year's particularly bad flu season.

Patrick Garbutt works in housekeeping at the hospital and represents the local union of registered practical nurses. He says one nurse told him they had 100 banked hours of vacation but couldn’t take it because there was no one to take over their patients. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

"What they really need to be looking at is the acuity of the patient, the need of the actual patients on the floor. If you have somebody who has cardiac issues, they need more intensive care than other people do. So, [nurses are] being stretched to the limit."

He said nurses are scared to refuse to look after a larger number of patients, even if they believe it's unsafe for both them and the patient. But they're equally scared of making an error that harms a patient, which could lead to a nurse being reported to the college and potentially see them lose their livelihood.

He said three full-time registered nursing positions have been lost in the last year and the hospital has only recently posted for six part-time registered practical nursing positions. Those positions don't have the same training as registered nurses and often can't take care of more serious patients or those with complex medical needs.

Hospital says patient care not compromised

Hospital President and CEO Eric Hanna says it can be challenging to find enough part-time and casual staff to fill in for nurses when they get sick or take vacation. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

"These are challenging times right now with the complexity of patients," said Eric Hanna, the president and CEO of Arnprior Regional Health, which includes the hospital. "But at the same time we also have patients who are here in the hospital as well who don't need to be here -- so these are people waiting to go to nursing homes as well and so the acuity of the patients is also fluctuating up and down."

He said the hospital has adjusted staffing levels based on patient occupancy rates, but also said those rates haven't changed in the past few years.

He said it is difficult to determine the right number of staff to match the needs of patients and finding enough nurses who are willing to work part-time or casually.

However, he said patients are receiving adequate care and disputed that any patients have had to be transferred to other hospitals because of a staffing shortage.

Other departments suffering

"We now have a skeleton staff," said Pam Donaldson, a medical radiation technologist at the hospital who said she's seen cuts to ultrasound and medical radiation technologists.

She said her department has enough staff as long as everyone is working, but that can change quickly.

"When one person calls in sick in our department, it's an emergency to try to find someone else to cover our shifts, because... the doctors need to have access to diagnostic tests to help their patients."

Part of the challenge is that the technologists are now alone with patients — which she said is stressful — or nurses have to come with them, leaving behind their other patients.