Alberta is starting 2023 in a health-care crisis, which has been with us for a long time and just seems to go on and on. Albertans understand a dire shortage of nurses is impacting all of Canada. The crisis in this province began before the arrival of COVID-19 and has been made worse by the global pandemic and our governments’ responses to it.
Everyone is familiar with the results. Here’s one example: Lineups so long at children’s hospitals Alberta Health Services had to set up a trailer so families can shelter from sub-zero temperatures while waiting for young patients to be triaged.
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For young patients facing important surgeries or suffering from health emergencies, the consequences can obviously be much worse. In many cases, it will take years to assess the impact of this ongoing crisis on the long-term health of young patients.
Through it all, front-line nurses want Albertans to know we have solutions to offer and are eager to collaborate with all levels of government to fix this crisis.
Often, though, it feels as if no one is listening. Our provincial government is focused on reorganizing AHS leadership, privatizing public health-care services, and planning unneeded “health spending accounts” to pave the way to user fees and co-pays. Ottawa and the provinces have been unable to reach an agreement on national health-care funding because the provinces demand there be no requirements or accountability attached to federal funds.
Nurses want Albertans to know that what we want is simple: We want patients to receive the care they need, and for nurses to practise their profession under safe and sustainable working conditions.
To do that, we need our governments to start listening to us. Governments must do three things to fix the nursing shortage crisis: Keep experienced nurses in their jobs; attract nurses back to the workforce; and recruit nurses where they are needed most. We need proven programs, backed by firm timelines and real accountability.
That is not what’s happening now.
“It’s not uncommon to get 50, 75 or even 100 texts on your phone every day from Staffing, looking for nurses to fill shifts,” says Cathleen Cobb, a registered nurse in the ICU at Edmonton’s Misericordia Community Hospital.
“It’s completely unreasonable,” she said. “You know that even if you pick up, you’re still going to be working short three or more nurses. So, you know it’s going to be a terrible shift.
Alberta could reduce workloads by implementing safe nurse-to-patient ratios and making further targeted investments in retention initiatives. The federal government should also make direct investments to support return and recruitment initiatives. Nurses want Ottawa and the provinces to work together to improve local and regional health workforce planning and capacity building.
These solutions will help bring nurses and early-retirees back to the public sector, reducing Alberta’s reliance on expensive private agencies while still ensuring surge needs are met across the country. We also need to expand domestic nursing education programs and target recruitment to diversify the nursing workforce. Alberta should scale up student nurse programs to support new nursing graduates in securing employment in attractive full-time jobs.
Nurses deserve safe workplaces and patients deserve access to the care they need. All levels of government must step up, just as nurses have for so long. This is a big challenge, but together we can improve health care for nurses and patients alike.
We know 2023 will be a year of significant challenges, not just from COVID-19 and other respiratory diseases, but from the impacts of chronic underfunding and understaffing in health care.
Failing to deal with this reality will contribute to further declines in Alberta’s nursing workforce, and even more difficult working conditions in our facilities.
Alberta’s nurses have real solutions. Our governments need to listen to them.
Heather Smith is president of United Nurses of Alberta, which represents more than 30,000 registered nurses, registered psychiatric nurses and allied health care professionals. Linda Silas is president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions.