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April 13, 2023

Opinion: It will take action, not handshakes, to fix Canada’s health care crisis

The following opinion editorial was originally published in The Hill Times on April 10, 2023.

Budget 2023 reads like the federal government hoisted a “mission accomplished” banner declaring our health care crisis over. I’ve got news for them: our frontline nurses are still facing dangerous working conditions, worsening staff shortages, and cancelled vacations.

Increased federal health care funding and bilateral agreements with the provinces and territories are welcome, but let’s not fall under the illusion that the health workforce crisis has vanished. It’s springtime, and nurses will likely be told by their employers to put their summer vacation plans on hold because of ongoing staffing shortages.

Canada’s nurses were looking to the federal government to deliver a pan-Canadian approach with coordinated health workforce planning, backed by concrete solutions and adequate resources, to address the dire shortages of nurses and other health workers facing communities across the country. Nurses know it will take action, not handshakes, to fix Canada’s health care crisis.

This was made clear in recent weeks as several provinces released their budgets. Despite the influx of billions of dollars from Ottawa, and the promise to make supporting health workers a priority, provinces mostly failed to address nursing shortages, save for some positive steps taken in Nova Scotia and British Columbia, which became the first province to adopt minimum nurse-patient ratios.

This failure to act means staffing shortages will go on plaguing health care systems, and patient care will continue to suffer. We will continue to experience alarming wait times in emergency rooms, ballooning waitlists for medical procedures, and nurses heading for the exits in the face of impossible workloads and dangerous working conditions.

A shocking four out of 10 nurses are considering leaving their job, the profession, or retiring, mostly due to high workloads and poor staffing levels, according to a recent poll commissioned by the CFNU. Just as distressing, the research also revealed that nearly half of early-career nurses report symptoms of clinical burnout. That’s why it is so disappointing to see governments fail to act urgently to better support nurses, and swiftly bring in effective retention and recruitment strategies.

Frontline nurses have not just been demanding action, we’ve also been doing the hard work of developing concrete solutions that match the severity of the challenges facing our health care systems.

The federal government can immediately start addressing problems driving nurses out of the profession through a new Nurse Retention Fund, designed to urgently scale best practices for the retention, return, and recruitment of nurses. This initiative would identify successful measures from workplaces across the country and expand them to help other communities. It would initially focus on better retaining recent graduates through new mentorship programs.

In the context of a deepening crisis, nurses also proposed a targeted, time-limited tax measure designed to keep nurses from leaving the profession or encourage those who left to return to the workplace. Almost two in three nurses said this could keep them in the profession. This isn’t brain surgery. We’ve seen federal tax incentives introduced to provide targeted help to trade workers and teachers. So why won’t the government do the same for nurses?

Nurses have also been asking for better access to mental health support. Internet-delivered cognitive behavioral therapy programs have been successful for public safety workers. The government could very quickly tailor this program to begin delivering new mental health supports to nurses across the country.

Health care continues to face a crisis unlike anything we have seen before, but it is not beyond repair. While the 2023 budget failed to deliver, governments still have an opportunity to take up these concrete, evidence-based solutions from frontline nurses. Working together, we can finally start improving conditions for both nurses and the patients they care for.

Linda Silas is the president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, which is the national voice for nearly 250,000 nurses and student nurses across Canada.