What has Northern Health been doing to recruit, retain healthcare professionals?

Northern Health continues to tackle recruitment and retention issues in the northeast by introducing new initiatives to add to their existing programs.

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Fort St. John Hospital. (Energeticcity.ca)

FORT ST. JOHN, B.C. — Northern Health continues to tackle recruitment and retention issues in the northeast by introducing new initiatives to add to its existing programs.

An apprenticeship program is one way the health authority is working on recruitment.

In May 2022, Northern Health began participating in the provincial healthcare assessment program.

Angela De Smit, chief operating officer for the health authority’s northeast division, said the idea “somewhat” came from Peace Villa’s staffing shortage, where they would hire long-term care support workers.

“They would go around, and they would do things like making beds and delivering sheets and restocking those types of things in order to free up the care aids and the licensed practical nurses and the [registered nurses],” she explained.

De Smit said the apprentice program allows individuals to begin in jobs as support workers before stepping away from that job and are paid as a student to complete their healthcare aid program.

“That has made a significant change in terms of lowering our healthcare aid vacancy rate, particularly in long-term care,” De Smit said.

“We are also starting to see more of our community home support worker positions filled as a result of that as well.”

De Smit said more than half of the Northern Lights College Licensed Practical Nursing graduates were hired in May, and most of those graduates were hired in the northeast region, while the remainder went to other areas within Northern Health.

Starting in June, the new northeast recruitment and retention ambassador, along with staff and nurses, held a series of healthcare trade shows in the region to showcase the careers available in the healthcare sector.

“What we’re finding now is we’ve got the LPN program and the care aid programs, but they’re only filling about 70 to 75 per cent of their seats,” De Smit explained.

“If we could actually fill the number of seats that we have in the northeast, that would be tremendous.”

According to De Smit, Northern Health is also part of the provincial recruitment and retention strategy, focusing on people’s care.

“We’ve had a shortage of social workers, so now we’ve introduced the social assistance positions that are supported by social workers, but those positions are trained right here in the northeast through the Northern Lights College,” she explained.

“We’re opening opportunities for other types of healthcare workers.”

Another retention strategy is a bonus of $1,100 to $1,400 for full-time workers each quarter, depending on where the individual worked, De Smit said.

Since 2019, Northern Health has offered a travel resource pool for those who want to travel with their work. 

“If I’m a nurse in Fort St. John and I wanna travel, then I can also join the travel resource pool — still be a Northern Health Authority staff member — but I can travel out to Haida Gwaii, or I can travel to Smithers,” she said.

“Typically, what we’re finding is they go off for six months or sometimes two years, and then they’re now starting to come back to Fort St. John. They’ve done their travelling.”

De Smit said initially, the program had only 20 staff participating, whereas now there are well over 150 staff members travelling throughout Northern Health.

The health authority is working with the Ministry of Health, Interior Health, Island Health and the British Columbia Nurses Union in this program.

De Smit also thanked community members for the support shown to the healthcare staff, as it helps recruit and retain staff in the region.

Despite the efforts for recruitment and retention, the Fort St. John Hospital’s maternity services suffered a 36-hour service disruption in November due to staffing shortages.

“We can’t totally go on diversion because women come in labour in different stages, so if they came in and they were eight out of the ten centimetres dilated, we can’t send them to Dawson Creek, they wouldn’t make it, and they’d be delivering at the side of the road,” De Smit explained.

She said there was always the ability to provide an assessment to determine the best option for the mom and baby during service disruptions or diversions.

De Smit said the diversions in Hudson’s Hope were primarily due to most healthcare workers working alone.

“So there’s one nurse or one lab tech, so when the nurse is on vacation, and we can’t replace her with an agency nurse, then the facility goes on diversion for emergent situations,” she said.

“But patients are still coming in and seeing the doctor in the medical clinic part of the building.”

She said Chetwynd had diversions for similar reasons, specifically “patient acuity.”

“So when I talk about patient acuity because there’s one doctor and one registered nurse and maybe one or two licensed practical nurses, if they end up having a patient that comes in with a heart attack or has one or two patients involved in a motor vehicle crash, if they’re significant injuries, that can overwhelm a small facility,” De Smit said.

De Smit said healthcare facilities might be diverted so patients can get immediate care rather than waiting at a place that is overwhelmed.

“So it’s largely because of staffing and trying to recruit and retain to the small rural communities,” she said.

De Smit wished to highlight the work done by Northern Health staff members every day, despite the gaps in the system.

“It’s unsettling to us as well as the community when there are gaps in our services or services aren’t able to be accessed as quickly,” she said.

“But we just have to remember that we do have a lot of really dedicated staff that are working in a system that, right now, is very overwhelmed and overloaded and that they are doing the best they can.”

Northern Health Chief Operating Officer Angela De Smit wanted to communicate that Northern Health is grateful to the healthcare staff for their dedication and support while they work on hiring and retaining more staff.

De Smit said to keep services running, everyone has to be careful not to get upset at the staff, who have limited control over their work system. In 2022, Energeticcity.ca started an investigative series titled Code Grey, posting multiple stories diving into the history and healthcare crisis in the region.

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