New Brunswick

Bathurst obstetrics unit closed because province didn't heed warnings, union says

Chaleur Regional Hospital’s latest closure of the obstetrics unit comes after calls for higher pay and the training of more nurses fell on deaf ears, the president of the New Brunswick Nurses Union says.

Nursing shortage blamed on low compensation and too few students in nursing programs

Paula Doucet, president of the New Brunswick Nurses Union, says a major, foreseeable nursing shortage forced the closure of the obstetrics unit at the Chaleur Regional Hospital again this week. (CBC News)

Chaleur Regional Hospital's latest closure of the obstetrics unit comes after calls for higher pay and the training of more nurses fell on deaf ears, the president of the New Brunswick Nurses Union says.

This is the second time in two weeks the obstetrics unit at the Bathurst hospital has been closed because there aren't enough nurses.

Paula Doucet, president of the nurses union, said nurses at in the unit were being overworked, which put them and their patients at risk.

"I think it was a good call on Chaleur Regional to ensure the safety of labouring moms, but also ensure the safety of their staff," said Doucet.

Until Tuesday at 8 a.m., pregnant women in the Bathurst area are being advised to travel to Miramichi or Campbellton to have their babies. The unit was also closed last week.

This summer, Doucet said, some nurses in the obstetrics unit were working shifts of 24 to 48 hours.

"That's not safe," she said. "Nurses can't provide safe patient care." 

'Nobody's really taken us seriously'

For years, the union president has been warning government officials, universities and the two health authorities in the province about the cyclical shortage of nurses.

"I think it was falling on deaf ears, and that's where I think we are today," she said.

One of the biggest problems, she said, is that not enough people are going into nursing programs at the University of New Brunswick and the University of Moncton. And when students do apply to the faculty, there aren't enough seats, resulting in wait lists.

We've got a government right now that we're not sure where we're going with. It's been meeting and meeting and meeting and there's been no action plan put in place. -Paula  Doucet , New Brunswick Nurses Union

Doucet said it's up to the universities to determine how to spread their funding among faculties.

"We've been told for a number of years the faculty of nursing has been starving," she said.

She said government needs to earmark specific money for the faculty of nursing, so it can hire appropriate professors and have enough clinical instructors.

The University of New Brunswick accepts 140 nursing students in the province each year spread across four-year programs in Fredericton and Saint John as well as an advanced standing program in Moncton, according a university spokesperson.

The school also offers a two-year condensed program. 

"In October, we graduated a class of 33 students from the two-year condensed program that is the only one of its kind in New Brunswick," said Dr. Lorna Butler, UNB's dean of nursing.

"We have filled the seats in this new program and expect it to help with the current situation in New Brunswick not only because it will increase the number of nurses graduating, but it will provide the workforce with nurses ready to be hired at a staggered rate."

Attracting more young people

Doucet said stakeholders met last December and discussed different ways to attract more young people to the profession.

"We've got a government right now that we're not sure where we're going with," she said. "It's been meeting and meeting and meeting and there's been no action plan put in place.

"That's one thing we've been saying, we need to see an action plan. It's not five years out, it's now. We need it right now, we've been saying it for years and nobody's really taken us seriously."

Little compensation

Doucet said another problem nurses face is compensation that isn't fair compared to the rest of Atlantic Canada.

In 2012 and 2013, nurses in New Brunswick experienced a wage freeze. Now, their pay is about four per cent less than that of a nurse's salary in Nova Scotia. 

"We're playing catch-up, when other provinces didn't impose those zeros on their staff," she said.

When nursing students do graduate, they'll often only be hired as casuals at New Brunswick hospitals, she said.

"They're coming out of university with huge debt," she said. "They want permanent part-time or permanent full-time work to pay down that student debt."

CBC New Brunswick's Rachel Cave talks to New Brunswick Nurses Union president Paula Doucet about the short-staffing of nurses trained in obstetrics in several New Brunswick hospitals. 1:31

Often, nurses will move to other Maritime provinces, where they can get permanent work, are paid more and still don't live too far from home.

Before the September election, Doucet said, she was able to meet with all five party leaders to make sure nursing was an important issue, and she's hopeful it will still become one. 

CBC News has also asked New Brunswick Health Minister Benoît Bourque for an interview but has not received a response. 

With files from Information Morning Fredericton