Nurses stretched thin: Nurses’ Union speaks on overcapacity, staffing issues in northern B.C.

FORT ST. JOHN, B.C – Nursing shortages have been an ongoing problem in northern B.C. for many years and has on…

FORT ST. JOHN, B.C – Nursing shortages have been an ongoing problem in northern B.C. for many years and has only gotten worse during the pandemic, says the B.C. Nurses’ Union.

“The north has been struggling for a very long time. Fort St. John is an example of a hospital that is struggling; it is really having difficulties,” says Christine Sorensen, president of the BCNU.

The hospital’s ICU is closed due to a lack of critical care nurses and, Sorensen says, has around a 30 per cent surge capacity, which fluctuates. This means the hospital has a capacity of around 130 per cent for funded beds and requires nurses to care for the additional patients.

“Unfortunately, there are no additional nurses. So the current nurses employed in Fort St. John and Northern Health are having to make up the shortfall. So that is where nurses work an extraordinary amount of overtime to try to meet patient care needs.”

Dawson Creek hospital, which is currently dealing with its second outbreak, had to pause surgeries last week due to a lack of medical staff, not nurses, adds Sorensen.

Northern Health Spokesperson, Eryn Collins, says the health authority has taken a cautious approach to surgical services.

“There can be times when a facility, whether for staffing reasons or capacity reasons, might need to make additional changes to surgical services. But it is very much a day by day assessment,” says Collins.

An Auditor General of B.C. report released in 2018 showed Northern Health wasn’t doing enough to recruit and retain nurses. The report showed in April 2017, the health authority was short 121 Registered Nurses or 15% of its rural and remote workforce, and more than a quarter of remote Nurse Practitioner positions were also vacant.

As there are so many hours in a day, so many overtime hours nurses can work, Sorensen says patient care may be delayed or denied care, especially if cases continue to rise.

“While we’ve had this concern for a very long time, actually, we’ve been raising this with two successive governments who seem not to have paid enough attention to the growing nursing shortage that has been created from failing to invest in nursing education and meet the needs of the BC’s labour market outlook study,” says Sorensen

The study released in 2019 states the province will need around 20,000 nurses by 2029. In the northeast, 240 job openings for nurses will need to be filled in the next eight years.

Sorensen states nurses will do everything to support and provide patient care during the shortage while supporting one another, but there will be consequences.

“Unfortunately, there will be situations where patient care will be delayed; it may be denied and, unfortunately, patients may die because there is no nursing care needed to care for patients safely.”

This is a horrible situation for nurses, causing incredible amounts of moral stress, adds Sorensen.

“They went into this profession to care for their patients, and when they can’t provide the care that patients need, they become emotionally and physically exhausted and burnt out.”

According to Sorensen, residents can support nurses by following public health guidelines and only leaving their home if it’s essential to reduce the virus transmission.

“I ask for the public to please support nurses by calling on our provincial governments to invest in nursing. This pandemic has shone a light on the nursing shortage in this province.”

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