Nfld. & Labrador

Nursing shortages disrupting patient care across N.L., says union, but health minister disagrees

Protests outside St. Anthony's hospital are just one alarm bell warning of the impact of chronic nursing shortages, with one union saying the situation is worsening and systemic changes are needed to find a fix.
Protesters have turned out in recent days to the Charles S. Curtis Memorial Hospital in St. Anthony to voice their frustrations about service reductions that the health authority says are temporary. (Submitted by Renee Pilgrim)

Protests outside St. Anthony's hospital are just one alarm bell warning of the impact of chronic nursing shortages across Newfoundland and Labrador, with one union saying the situation is worsening and systemic changes are needed to fix it.

Residents of the Northern Peninsula have held a series of protests outside the Charles S. Curtis Memorial Hospital in St. Anthony in recent days to voice their frustrations around what the local health authority says is a temporary reduction in services, due to summer staffing shortages, that will last to mid-September.

One protester said people are concerned about the transparency of the health authority's decisions — like cutting the number of the hospital's intensive-care unit beds from four to two — and are skeptical the changes truly are temporary.

"We're lied to all the time. It's all done in backdoor deals, like nobody knows what's going on," said Dean Strangemore of the Save Our Hospital Action Committee.

According to the Registered Nurses' Union Newfoundland and Labrador, there are at least 13 registered nurse vacancies at the hospital, with a nurse vacancy rate for Labrador-Grenfell Health overall hovering at 40 per cent.

"We are experiencing very tremendous nursing challenges right now," said Labrador-Grenfell Health CEO Heather Brown.

That strain is exacerbated by the annual summer crunch, when hospital services across Newfoundland and Labrador typically slow down to accommodate staff vacation time.

Yvette Coffey, president of the Registered Nurses' Union Newfoundland and Labrador, says nurses worked 300,000 hours of overtime in the year before the pandemic. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

The RNU disputes the suggestion that summer is the problem.

Even before the pandemic, from March 2019 to March 2020, registered nurses worked 300,000 hours of overtime, union president Yvette Coffey said. Nurses also aren't currently being granted annual leave in some places, including Happy Valley-Goose Bay, she said, and long-term care admissions have been closed in some St. John's facilities with 40 to 50 nurse vacancies there.

"This has nothing to do with granting vacation. Nothing," Coffey told CBC News on Wednesday.

'No magic bullet'

On Tuesday, Health Minister John Haggie said nurse shortages have not started to affect services.

"We haven't got to that kind of situation. I think our challenges have been some chronic issues around recruitment, and we have been working with the RNU for strategies around that," he said.

Coffey said she was disappointed by that response.

"Everybody needs to come together and admit there's a shortage," she said.

She outlined myriad patient impacts, with at least 60 people in acute care beds in various St. John's hospitals waiting to move into long-term care, and more in the community waiting as well. When ICU beds at St. Anthony's hospital are full, it has an agreement to send overflow patients to the Health Sciences Centre in St. John's, but Coffey said that can't happen, because the HSC has no capacity to take on the extra load.

People being cared for by nurses may also be noticing the difference, Coffey said.

"If you have a mentally, physically exhausted registered nurse working, that is going to affect patient care. You are more apt to make mistakes. Things are getting missed when you are tired and exhausted," she said.

Health Minister John Haggie says a number of small changes need to be made to address nursing issues. (CBC)

Haggie said the ways in which nurses are working has to be looked at, to make sure registered nurses aren't filing paperwork, answering phones or doing other non-nursing duties, as well as looking at the software for scheduling.

"There really is no magic bullet," he said.

Coffey said all parties involved need to get together and hash out short- and long-term strategies to address the shortage. She wants to see a core staffing review, a human resource strategy and other ideas.

That may cost money, she said, but nurse overtime was already a $25-million expense prior to COVID-19.

"Everything is going to cost money, but there's also the cost of the physical and mental exhaustion on the members who are working in the system every day."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland Morning

With files from Mark Quinn and Newfoundland Morning

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