'Chronic overcapacity' at St. Boniface neonatal unit putting newborns at risk: hospital president

The president of St. Boniface Hospital argues the centre's neonatal unit has been overworked for years and that's putting the care of newborns at risk.

Stagnant funding, increased workload reported at intensive care unit

The president of St. Boniface Hospital says that the health of newborns needing intensive care could be at risk without an increase in funding. (Shutterstock)

The president of St. Boniface Hospital argues the centre's neonatal unit has been overworked for years, and that's putting the care of newborns at risk.

Martine Bouchard wrote in a letter to the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority that the repercussions of "chronic overcapacity" can have life-altering effects. 

"The consequences of inadequate access to neonatal intensive care can range from profound physical and neurological compromise to learning and social problems," read the letter, which Bouchard wrote earlier this fall and which was presented by the NDP during question period at the Manitoba Legislature on Thursday.

The neonatal intensive care unit has not experienced a funding increase since early in the decade, while the number of babies admitted into its care has risen 7.5 per cent, said the Sept. 26, 2018, letter, which stated nurses are being spread thin and that's leading to mandatory overtime.

The letter, which asked for an increase in funding to address overcapacity, also said there is a 42 per cent increase in the number of babies experiencing symptoms of drug addiction since last year.

It also made reference to four neonatal deaths, saying they were possibly the result of the strain on staffing, but St. Boniface Hospital said in an email Thursday the deaths dated back to 2009 to 2012. The WRHA stated none of the deaths were related to resource or staffing issues.

Longstanding concern: Pallister

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said in the legislative chamber the former government sat back as these problems worsened, but he's responding. 

"That's a longstanding concern that was unaddressed by the previous NDP government," he said. "We're addressing it."

On Wednesday, the province announced $3.2 million to hire 30 new nurses and fund 11 additional beds at the neonatal units at St. Boniface and Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew flagged the letter as another example of Tory cuts to the province's health-care system, pointing to a spike in overtime hours and patients affected by drug use.

"The understaffing at the neonatal unit is actually causing a domino effect that is impacting other departments at the hospital," he said. "The government has been slow to respond, but even their response to date doesn't really address the impact."

Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said the province shouldn't discount the concerns of nurses worried about mandatory overtime by saying the overall rate is actually falling. 

"That's like calling 911 and saying 'my house is on fire,' and the operator says, 'Well, fires on average are down,'" he said. "That's been the response from this government on this and a ton of other issues."

Funding increase

Bouchard's letter also indicated that sometimes patients cannot be diverted from one neonatal unit to the other because both are at capacity.

"This presents an even larger risk to patient safety because in actuality it means that both sites are overcapacity."  

The letter shows that overtime levels peaked at nearly 800 hours every two weeks this summer, which more than doubled any biweekly period in 2017.

Since then, however, the province has pledged $3.2 million in funding, which a spokesperson from St. Boniface Hospital said would go a long way toward relieving pressure on the unit.

Manitoba Nurses Union president Darlene Jackson is not celebrating.

She said the funding increase only covers the basics and does not entirely ease the pressure on workers.

"As far as I'm concerned, funding baseline staffing levels is the minimum that this government should be committing themselves to do," Jackson said.

"They delayed for months and now they're congratulating themselves, patting themselves on the back for providing minimum funding for a crisis."

Jackson added it would take six to eight months to properly train the nurses.

With files from Susan Magas.

About the Author

Ian Froese

Reporter

Ian Froese is a reporter at CBC Manitoba. He previously wrote about rural Manitoba for the Brandon Sun and the Carillon in Steinbach. Story idea? Email ian.froese@cbc.ca.