Edmonton

Calling in student nurses points to pending crisis in Alberta hospitals, doctors say

Calling in nursing students and redeploying health-care workers to treat COVID-19 patients point to a pending crisis inside Alberta's hospitals, doctors say. 

'I'm worried that they're going to be out of their depth,' says Edmonton ER doctor

A staff member works at an intensive care unit at an Alberta hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic. To prepare for an influx of hospitalizations, 610 nursing students will join Alberta Health Services to help provide pandemic care. (AHS)

Calling in nursing students and redeploying health-care workers to treat COVID-19 patients point to a pending crisis inside provincial hospitals, Alberta doctors say. 

"It's disconcerting from a patient-care standpoint," said Edmonton emergency physician Dr. Shazma Mithani. "It really illustrates pretty clearly to me how dire the situation is." 

The province is struggling to staff its hospital wards during the wave of Omicron cases.

Unprecedented numbers of health-care workers have been sidelined by COVID-19, just as acute care and inpatient wards are inundated with newly infected patients. 

To prepare for an influx of hospitalizations, 610 nursing students will join Alberta Health Services (AHS) to help provide pandemic care, Premier Jason Kenney said Thursday. 

The announcement came as the province set a new mark for COVID-19 hospitalizations, with 1,131 patients in care.

There will likely be 1,500 or more COVID patients in non-ICU beds when Alberta reaches its hospitalization peak later this month, Kenney said.

The student nurses will be deployed on new patient-care teams, working alongside nurses and doctors seconded from other units, and medical staff experienced in treating COVID-19 patients. 

AHS says students involved in the paid practicums will be carefully trained, supervised and matched to areas of greatest need within the health-care system, including acute care wards and emergency rooms.

AHS says some of the student nurses have already been deployed in hospitals. More will be brought in over the coming weeks after completing expedited training, spokesperson Kerry Williamson said in a statement Friday. 

We need staffing but as soon as there is a deviation from the typical standard of care, it starts raising alarm bells for me.- Dr. Shazma Mithani

Mithani says she's worried they'll "be out of their depth."

"We need staffing but as soon as there is a deviation from the typical standard of care, it starts raising alarm bells for me." 

The students will need careful training and should never be allowed to provide direct bedside care without supervision, Mithani said.

She worries a rush to get more nurses to the front lines will leave patients vulnerable. She is also concerned the new care model will stretch experienced doctors and nurses too thin.

"They're already burnt-out after four waves of this pandemic and now, on a fresh wave, we're asking them to do even more," Mithani said. 

Labour shortages have already strained hospitals operating within razor-thin staffing margins

About five per cent of AHS staff — about 5,500 people — are now off sick at any one time, Verna Yiu, president and CEO of AHS said during Thursday's news conference. 

Between 18 to 20 per cent of shifts are being missed due to staff calling in sick, she said. 

COVID-19 hospitalizations increase sharply in Alberta

5 months ago
Duration 2:14
Dr. Verna Yiu, president and CEO of Alberta Health Services, says the province is again facing significant and increasing pressure on the health-care system due to speed at which Omicron is spreading.

AHS is changing the care model for pandemic patients to maximize staffing and maintain patient care, Yiu said.

Instead of individual health-care providers caring for a smaller number of patients, a team with a comprehensive skill set and relevant experience will care for a group of patients, Yiu said.

To prepare for a swell of hospitalizations, Alberta is also opening additional beds at pandemic response units and cancelling some non-urgent surgeries.

You have to be optimistic that the changes will help, but it's like shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.- Paul Parks

Dr. Paul Parks, president of the emergency medicine section of the Alberta Medical Association, likens Alberta's health-care system to a sinking ship. 

ER rooms and inpatient wards are crammed; patients are sometimes being housed in hallways and closets and the standard of care is slipping, Parks said. 

"You have to be optimistic that the changes will help, but it's like shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic right now," Parks said Thursday. 

"The way they're going to staff this is to rob Peter to pay Paul. They're going to have to take staff from other areas in the hospital that are already understaffed and very challenged."

The number of patients receiving care for COVID-19 has increased by about 40 per cent over the last week. Admissions to intensive care have jumped by about 18 per cent.

'All hands on deck'

Given the looming peak in cases, any help on the front lines is welcome, said Dr. Raj Sherman, an emergency room physician in Edmonton. 

Despite their inexperience, the student nurses are desperately needed, he said. 

"The fact that we're doing it acknowledges that the system is in crisis," Sherman said. 

"It's not an ideal situation … but it's all hands on deck right now in the health-care system and we need all the help that we can get."

Sherman said the ERs have been inundated, not only with COVID patients but Albertans who have waited too long for regular care.

Health-care workers are "running on fumes," he said. 

"We've been trying to squeeze blood from a stone for quite some time now."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Wallis Snowdon is a journalist with CBC Edmonton focused on bringing stories to the website and the airwaves. She loves helping people tell their stories on issues ranging from health care to the courts. Originally from New Brunswick, Wallis has reported in communities across Canada, from Halifax to Fort McMurray. She previously worked as a digital and current affairs producer with CBC Radio in Edmonton. Wallis has a bachelor of journalism (honours) from the University of King's College in Halifax, N.S. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca.

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