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April 17, 2021

Op-ed: Canada needs better health data infrastructure

Safe Staffing

The following opinion editorial (by Ivy Lynn Bourgeault and Linda Silas) first appeared in the Toronto Star on April 16, 2021.

Canada needs better health data infrastructure to support our health care heroes

Canada’s health workers have been here for all of us throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. It is time for us to be there for them.

That’s why dozens of associations, health care unions, networks, educators and researchers are calling on the federal government to make significant investments in the data infrastructure to better plan for and support the health workforce.

Improved health system planning through better health workforce data can make a world of difference for health workers and the Canadian public. In a pandemic, it can make the difference between life and death.

Most Canadians probably don’t realize that we lack data on the most basic components of our health workforce.

We lack data about the scope of work of health care workers, and about the diversity of the workforce, such as Indigenous or racial identity and language of service. We don’t know how different health teams work together or how can they be recruited, trained and retained where they are most needed.

In some critical sectors, such as home care, long-term care and mental health care, we don’t even know how many workers there are.

The lack of such basic information on the health workforce predates the pandemic, jeopardizing the work they do and the care we all receive. Safe, high-quality care for patients is tied to safe, high-quality work for health workers.

Pre-pandemic, the health workforce was overstretched, and there was growing concern about accessing timely care close to home. The pandemic has caused critical staffing shortages — a direct result of inadequate planning. This has contributed to an enormous mental health burden on health workers for which we risk unprecedented attrition from the health workforce.

This will inevitably lead to reductions in access to safe, high-quality care and increased wait times for patients.

In our call to action, signatories from across Canada, including the Canadian Health Workforce Network, the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, the Canadian Medical Association and over 30 health organizations and over 100 individuals, urge the federal government to play a stronger leadership role in helping address critical health workforce data gaps.

The federal government could create a dedicated health workforce agency akin to the Public Health Agency of Canada, with an explicit mandate to significantly enhance existing health workforce data infrastructure in Canada. These exist in many countries from England to Australia to New Zealand.

This agency should help co-ordinate and standardize the collection and analysis of workforce data across workers, sectors and jurisdictions, with links to relevant patient information, health care utilization and outcome data, to support more fit-for-purpose planning at the provincial, territorial, regional and training program levels.

Until we have more effective health workforce planning based on better health workforce data, we will continue to make decisions in the dark, with incomplete, misleading and nonstandardized information. Canada can expect inadequate planning for population needs now and into the future, inefficient deployment of health workers, persistent maldistribution of services and perpetuation of current inequities.

Ivy Lynn Bourgeault has a PhD in community health and is the lead of the Canadian Health Workforce Network. Linda Silas is a registered nurse and president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions.