Overtime hours worked by Vitalité nurses jumps 26% as staff shortages continue

The obstetrics unit at the Chaleur Regional Hospital in Bathurst reopened Monday after being plagued by nursing shortages for months, but the impact of vacant positions continues to be felt across the province with the Vitalité Health Network showing a 26 per cent jump in the number of overtime hours worked in the past year.

Nurses union warns situation could become 'catastrophic'

The number of overtime hours worked by nurses in New Brunswick has skyrocketed with nearly 400 vacant nursing positions across the province as of the end of 2018. (John Panella/Shutterstock)

The number of overtime hours worked by New Brunswick nurses within the Vitalité Health Network jumped by 26 per cent in the past year, according to figures obtained by CBC News through Right to Information.

The figures show the francophone health district lost about 200 nurses, or 10 per cent of the workforce, between the fiscal years 2017 and 2018. 

Close to a third of the remaining nurses are aged 50 or older.

Statistics for the the province's other health authority, the Horizon Health Network, were not immediately available, but there were nearly 400 vacant nursing positions vacant across the province at the end of 2018.

The head of the New Brunswick Nurses Union is calling for staffing shortages to be addressed immediately, before the situation becomes "catastrophic."

Strategy report expected 'soon'

The provincial government understands more nurses are needed, with a shortage of approximately 130 registered nurses expected each year for the next 10 years, said Department of Health spokesman Bruce Macfarlane.

A nursing resource steering committee, established last December to develop a 10-year strategy, is expected to present its report to the government "soon," he said.

Last week, Vitalité CEO Gilles Lanteigne and other officials from the health authority told a committee of MLAs that the recruitment of nurses is becoming increasingly difficult and that a system reorganization is needed.

They said the recent shutdown of the obstetrics unit at Chaleur Regional Hospital in Bathurst, which forced women to travel to Miramichi or Campbellton to deliver their babies, was symptomatic of the larger problem.

Although the obstetrics unit reopened Monday after being closed for three months, the impact of the nursing shortage continues to be felt across across the province.

Jenna Doiron of Moncton loves nursing, but spends most of her time teaching due to the increasingly difficult working conditions caused by staffing shortages. (CBC)

Jenna Doiron, who has been a nurse in Moncton for six years, said the pressure in the past few years has been unprecedented.

"Every day when you go to work as a nurse at the hospital, you know that probably there will be another nurse missing, or maybe two, or maybe three. And it's not easy because you know that during your day you will have more tasks to do," she said.

Faced with 16-hour shifts and no time to go to the washroom or eat, Doiron only works at the hospital on weekends now and teaches nursing at Moncton's community college instead.

Valerie Divers, who works full-time in obstetrics at the Dr. Georges-L.-Dumont University Hospital Centre in Moncton, shares Doiron's frustration.

She says the unit never has a full team. As a result, instead of looking after three moms and their newborns each shift,  — the hospital standard — nurses now have almost double that number.

Moncton nurse Valerie Divers says the obstetrics unit at the Dr. Georges-L.-Dumont University Hospital Centre never has a full team. (CBC)

In addition, the obstetrics nurses also have geriatric patients on their floor and under their care because of lack of beds in the rest of the hospital, said Divers.

"We're not giving adequate care," she said in French.

Divers is particularly worried because some job postings get no applicants — something she never saw just a few years ago.

There needs to be something done about this situation immediately before it becomes catastrophic.- Paula Doucet, New Brunswick Nurses Union

The New Brunswick Nurses Union has been warning the government and the health authorities that the health-care system is "being held together with overtime," president Paula Doucet said in an emailed statement.

Nurses working beyond their regularly scheduled eight- and 12-hour shifts is the unfortunate reality, she said.

Excessively long shifts will result in an increase in long-term disability claims and overall poor morale, warned Doucet.

"There needs to be something done about this situation immediately before it becomes catastrophic."

Vitalité Health Network saw its number of nurses drop from 2,365 in 2015 to 2,175 in 2018. (CBC)

It's unclear how many nurses Vitalité has hired in recent months. Officials did not immediately respond to questions.

The number of nurses working for Vitalité dropped from 2,365 in 2015 to 2,175 in 2018, the figures show, although the health authority says much of that decrease can be attributed to extramural nurses being transferred over to Medavie.

The 50-54 age group has the largest number of nurses at 370, while another 308 are 55 or older.

During the fiscal year 2016-17, nurses worked 13,486 hours of overtime. By 2017-18, the number of overtime hours had climbed to 17,078.

Nurses at the Dr. Georges-L.-Dumont University Hospital Centre in Moncton have been among the hardest hit. They worked 6,046 hours of overtime in 2017-18, up from 3,792 hours in 2016-17.

Those at the Campbellton Regional Hospital logged the next highest number of OT hours at 2,770 in 2017-18, up from 1,977 in 2016-17.

Vitalité provides care and services in northern and southeastern New Brunswick. It operates 11 hospitals, nine health centres, five clinics, 10 community mental health centres, four addiction centres, two veterans' centres and 11 public and sexual health offices, according to its website.

CBC News has requested the same data from the Horizon Health Network, but those results are expected to take at least another 30 days.

​Horizon operates 12 hospitals and more than 100 medical facilities, clinics and offices in the province.