Montreal

MUHC hires more neonatal nurses after overworked staff plead for help

Staffing levels are back on track after a cry for help from overworked nurses caring for the sickest newborn babies at the new Montreal Children's Hospital.

28 staff hired, layout improvements made to help reduce workload complaints

Ideally, there should be one nurse for each extremely sick baby. At the MUHC, nurses were juggling as many as six, their union said. (CBC)

Staffing levels are back on track after a cry for help from overworked nurses caring for the sickest newborn babies at the new Montreal Children's Hospital.

Last August, a critical nursing shortage in the hospital's neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) led to claims that the hospital was putting babies' lives at risk.  

At the time, the nurses' union reported a sudden spike in workload complaints from NICU nurses.

"It was every day and almost every shift," said Denyse Joseph, interim president of the MUHC's nursing union.

Ideally, there should be one nurse for each extremely sick baby. In less acute cases, the maximum ratio is one nurse to three patients.

Denyse Joseph is interim president of the MUHC's nursing union. (Union of Nursing and Cardio-respiratory Professionals of the MUHC)

However, the union said nurses were regularly juggling three patients —  and as many as six, if a colleague was on a break.

The NICU's new single-patient room design also meant nurses couldn't see or hear other patients who might be in distress or in need of help.

The complaints sparked an emergency recruiting effort this fall.

Full staffing at last

A spokeswoman for the hospital said the MUHC has now reached its goal, hiring 28 nurses for the NICU.

All but eight have completed their training and are already working on the unit.

Joseph said nurses are happy with the result, and workload complaints have dropped off dramatically.

"Compared from last summer to now, the average we are getting is just one every two weeks," said Joseph. "It's really nothing compared to the past."

A critical staffing shortage at the MUHC's neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) was putting babies' lives at risk, nurses said. (CBC)

Growing pains

Joseph said a number of factors contributed to the NICU's staffing crunch this summer.

Prior to moving to the Glen site, there was a six-month hiring freeze.

Maternity leaves have also presented a challenge: of the 170 nurses who staff the NICU, one in five is currently on maternity leave.

The unit's new layout was also an issue.

Instead of one large room with many babies, the new NICU opted for single-patient rooms. The rooms offer privacy and help with infection control but create more ground for nurses to cover.

"I have to walk for five minutes each time I need to go to one room and come back to my patient's room. It's a waste of five minutes each time," Joseph said.

To save time, medication and formula had to be relocated to several spots for quicker access.

The hospital also made sure that if nurses go inside one patient's room, they can still visually monitor multiple patients.

Joseph said both staff and families have complained about how isolating the rooms are. A post-transition coordinator is still trying to find a solution so families can better interact.

Looking forward

Due to the staff shortage last summer, the MUHC temporarily reduced the number of beds in the NICU to 45.

When it opened, it was mandated by the government to have 52 beds.

Until it reaches full capacity, less acute babies are being sent to other hospitals or cared for in other units to lessen the load.

Now that it's reached its staffing goal, the hospital said it will re-evaluate opening additional beds next month. 

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