Crippling health care staff shortage now top priority for N.W.T. health board

In an extraordinary statement issued Thursday afternoon, the heads of the N.W.T.'s health authorities said they are "deeply concerned" about the "critical situation" in the territory's health care.

Health department pulling staff from other health care tasks to maintain emergency services

Julie Green, the N.W.T. health minister, in the CBC News studio in Yellowknife. Green said Thursday that her department is "robbing Peter to pay Paul" by pulling health staff from other areas to ensure emergency care is still available amidst a worker shortage. (Emma Grunwald/ CBC)

As some health centres in the N.W.T. move to emergency-only services and others reduce their levels of service, the heads of the N.W.T.'s health authorities say solving the staffing crisis that's crippling some health services is their top priority.

In an extraordinary statement issued Thursday afternoon, they said they are "deeply concerned" about the "critical situation".

"Across the country, we are seeing health systems calling for help in a growing issue that threatens the ability to provide the care, services and access that people deserve and depend on," they wrote. "This is a problem that needs solutions at every level, nationally, territorially and locally."

On Wednesday, the territorial government announced immediate health service reductions in many communities, as well as in Stanton Territorial Hospital's operating room, which will have emergency-only services between July 18 and 22.

The service reductions are being driven in large part by a shortage of staff across the territory's health system.

Thursday's statement came from Jim Antoine, the chair of the N.W.T. Health and Social Services Leadership Council; Ted Blondin, the chair of the Tłı̨chǫ Community Services Agency; and Brian Willows, the public administrator for the Hay River Health and Social Services Authority.

"We know we need action and solutions now to address the urgent need for health professionals in our communities," the statement reads.

They noted many tools for attracting health workers would need the agreement of other government or stakeholder bodies, and pointed to a special task team they have set up to bring forward immediate recommendations for solutions.

"Immediate and focused collaboration will be the path to solving these issues," they wrote.

Some day-to-day care 'not available'

Speaking with CBC's Loren McGinnis Thursday on The Trailbreaker, N.W.T. Health Minister Julie Green says she hopes the situation won't get worse.

"What we're doing here is really robbing Peter to pay Paul to make sure that Stanton is fully staffed for emergent and urgent care. That has meant, in some cases, pulling in medical staff from other places like the primary health clinic in Yellowknife," Green said.

"There's no question that at this point, in order to make sure we have the emergency care covered, there's some day-to-day care that is not available."

The entrance of the emergency department at Stanton Territorial Hospital in Yellowknife on Aug. 21, 2021. (Liny Lamberink/CBC)

Green said her department often faces staffing challenges in the summer, but this summer seems to be worse than usual.

"The fallout, I'm sorry to say, is for the residents of the N.W.T., where emergency services in many places are the only services available," she said.

While her department is actively working to recruit doctors and nurses, Green said the worker shortage creates a "vicious cycle" for remaining staff, who have to work harder to cover the gaps in the system. Some have had to consider whether to postpone much-needed holidays; others may need those holidays in order to keep from burning out.

"We don't want people to burn out, we want them to have holidays, but at the same time we need them to work in order to provide the services. So I appreciate it puts people into a real dilemma," Green said.

"They need to make the best choice for themselves."

Looking for solutions

One recent measure her department has taken is paying a premium to locums in order to make the rate more competitive with the rest of the country. The department also continues to hire workers from health care agencies to help increase the size of the workforce.

Green said her department is also looking at whether paramedics could supplement nursing care in health centres — "unconventional approaches to ensure services continue to be provided."

Aside from the staff shortage, Green said the strain on the health care system also appears to be coming from people who put off going for medical attention during the pandemic.

She said she toured Stanton a couple months ago and was told that "people are sicker for longer than before the pandemic" — and though her department is still firming up the data on that, it appears that greater demand for health services is colliding with a decreased ability to meet those demands.

Wednesday's announcement of service reductions are among several recent health care-related shortfalls. Late last month, the laboratory at the Primary Care Centre closed and won't reopen until Sept. 5. That same month, Hay River residents were told to expect intermittent physician services for the summer starting July 5.

It also follows the dramatic, weeks long closure of obstetric care in Yellowknife, which forced dozens of families to leave the territory for births. 

The shortage of health care workers is being felt across the country, and the N.W.T. government has developed a task team to come up with some short-term solutions.

With files from Loren McGinnis