Ontario nursing shortage taking toll on northern health-care systems
Marathon, Thunder Bay hospitals making changes to staffing and services to address staff shortages
Hospitals across Ontario have been warning of the impacts of nursing shortages for months, and now rural health-care systems in the northwest are starting to feel the effects.
Last week, the North of Superior Healthcare Group, which manages two hospitals serving 200 kilometres along the north shore, shared with the public that temporary service disruptions can now be expected due to staffing shortages of registered nurses, registered practical nurses and personal support workers (PSWs).
"So one illness, one absence, one retirement can put us over the edge. And just, you know, simple lack of staff, lack of folks that are qualified to work for us in a demanding environment and want to come to the North," Adam Brown, CEO of North of Superior Healthcare Group, said in an interview with CBC.
Brown said interruptions to services at the Wilson Memorial General Hospital in Marathon include chemotherapy programs, obstetrics delivery, Telehealth, endoscopy and cataract surgery.
He said these interruptions allow for the full staffing of critical services at the hospital's emergency department through the winter, along with its acute and complex continued care wings.
"These folks in our buildings are working really, really hard and doing their best every day — and lots of patience and lots of empathy for those folks as well as they try to care for you, the patient, is really appreciated."
He said shortages are adding to existing burnout caused by the pandemic.
For patients, the disruption of these services will mean a necessity of travel in some cases, including to Terrace Bay's McCausland Hospital, which is about an hour from Marathon.
Brown said other programs, such as related to chemotherapy, are integrated with the Regional Health Sciences Centre in Thunder Bay, about 300 kilometres from Marathon.
Staff backfill pool limited in rural systems
Larger cities, such as Thunder Bay, usually have staffing options in the form of a backfill pool, but that's not always an option for smaller, rural health-care systems.
Brown said the hospital could once rely on agency nurses, often contracted from southern Ontario, but said even that option has been exhausted.
"The demand on them is so high from all of our communities that we've called up, I would speculate, at least half a dozen different agencies, and are having a difficult time finding any nurses available to provide contract service," he said.
In Thunder Bay, the Regional Health Sciences Centre is also looking for new avenues to fill staffing gaps.
In a statement to CBC News, a hospital spokesperson said PSWs will be hired to support the provision of patient care. The plan is to hire around 15 full-time equivalent people, with an anticipated start date in late February and early March.
"Adding PSWs to the team will allow our nurses to focus on acute patient needs while ensuring that the basic needs of our patients are being met," said Marcello Bernardo in an email.
"This is a temporary measure that will be trialled on one unit, and we're committed to revisiting it in six months. At no point will PSWs be replacing any nursing positions. There is also no financial savings to the hospital with this initiative."
Shortage continues across Ontario
According to the Ontario Nurses Association (ONA), there are 20,000 nursing vacancies in the province.
ONA vice-president Angela Preocanin said those vacancies are further exacerbated in the North as retention and recruitment tend to be more challenging.
"Rural areas are more susceptible I guess, or affected, by the shortage because of the lack of resources you have — you don't have many people that are going to venture to places like Marathon to look for a career in nursing," she said in an interview with CBC.
ONA, along with the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario, have made recommendations to the province to address staffing shortages.
With files from Jasmine Kabatay