Nfld. & Labrador

Nurse staffing issues at crisis level in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, says union

The president of the Registered Nurses' Union of Newfoundland and Labrador says nurses in Happy Valley-Goose Bay are overworked and the situation is critical.

Health authority admits Labrador staffing is a challenge, but working on solutions

Debbie Forward says the staffing situation in Happy Valley-Goose Bay has reached a breaking point. (CBC)

The president of the Registered Nurses' Union of Newfoundland and Labrador says the situation for RNs working in Happy Valley-Goose Bay has reached crisis level, while Labrador-Grenfell Health says it's working to address issues.

Debbie Forward, president of the union, said last week that there are significant concerns about staff shortages and the level of experience of registered nurses at the Labrador Health Centre.

"I mean I'm told that on the inpatient unit the most senior RN has years two of experience. We know that the regional health authority has been bringing in agency RN's to cover off shifts because they don't have enough staff, and last year that cost them about one point five million dollars," Forward told CBC Radio's Labrador Morning.

"They've really reached a breaking point."

Anxious and afraid

The union asked members for feedback on how they're feeling at work in a survey conducted in October.

"They're using words like anxious, afraid, frustrated, depressed, because they don't have the support that they need in order to provide care in that facility. So yes, it is a crisis," she said.

People leave because it's really bad, but we need more people so it won't be really bad.- Debbie Forward

Forward said nurses brought in from other health authorities for short term stints have told her they don't want to go back because they don't feel it's a safe work environment. 

She also said newer nursing graduates who have return in service agreements because of education bursaries from the provincial government are choosing to pay back the money and leave because they don't want to continue working in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

Retention of staff in northern or isolated communities has always been a challenge, and Forward said breaking the cycle is critical to improving the situation for current employees.

"People leave because it's really bad, but we need more people so it won't be really bad. How do we attract people? So we first need to identify the problem and put in place some real, tangible, actionable, solutions so that we are effecting change within the group that is currently there, and then we can move out to the recruitment piece."

Looking at strategies

The union met with Labrador-Grenfell Health members this week to discuss their concerns, and Donnie Sampson, the health authority's chief nursing officer, said they acknowledge there are recruitment and retention challenges for rural and remote locations.

"But we are working on short- and long-term strategies to address that," she said.

Donnie Sampson, the chief nursing officer with Labrador-Grenfell Health, says the health authority is working to address staff shortages. (Katie Breen/CBC)

Sampson said some of the shorter-term strategies to address concerns include working with the provincial department of health to offer signing bonuses, education bursaries that are contingent on working in certain areas of the province, alternative scheduling and mentoring programs.

"Then there's more longer-term strategies," she said.

"We've had some challenges when it comes to our community clinics, and we've implemented a regional nurse mentorship program, which really gives novice nurses … the knowledge, skill and experience to go out and work in community clinics."

Labrador-Grenfell Health is also working with nursing schools for work-term placements so nursing students have "some exposure and experience to working in rural and remote areas," Sampson said.

Growing their own

Sampson said a key way to address staffing shortages in Labrador is to look within.

In 1992 a program placed 10 people from Labrador in nursing school, she noted.

"And 25 years later, we still have seven of those out there," she said. "They were local from the area, and I'm actually one of those graduates."

Labrador-Grenfell Health is exploring ways with Memorial University to offer a nursing course to a small group in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

Committee meeting to address problems

A committee formed to address the staffing issues in Happy Valley-Goose Bay — with members from the provincial health department, the health authority and the union — met this week for the first time.

"It's a complex issue, and I think we're quite excited to have formed this working group that involves multiple players because we realize that it is quite complex."

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