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July 10, 2019

Opinion: Premiers must act to end rampant violence in health care


This opinion editorial was originally published in the Regina Leader-Post and Saskatoon StarPhoenix on July 10, 2019.

Tracy Zambory and Linda Silas

Canada’s provincial and territorial premiers are assembling in Saskatoon this week for their annual summit, and nurses unions from across the country will be on hand to deliver a clear message: Violence is not part of our job.

Every day, nurses in Saskatchewan and across Canada are being punched, kicked, spat on, sworn at and beaten. Conditions only seem to be worsening, leading to an epidemic of violence in health care.

Nurses are sounding the alarm. We are calling a “Code White” as we do in hospitals when a violent incident occurs. It’s time for provincial governments to act before any more nurses leave a profession already plagued by serious staffing shortages. An international study found that, compared to 10 other high-income countries, Canada was in the bottom three in number of nurses to population.

Understaffing of hospital units, long-term care facilities and home care services — even as workers are caring for more and sicker patients – leaves patients and their families frustrated and nurses vulnerable. Combined with weak security protocols, the violence crisis is the outcome of years of funding and nurse staffing shortfalls.

It’s a pressure cooker out there on the front lines of our health care system.

According to a national survey, a staggering 61 per cent of nurses reported a serious problem with violence over a recent 12-month period. Fully two-thirds of nurses considered leaving their jobs. As high as these numbers seem, most cases remain unreported, owing to a culture of acceptance that has persisted for too long.

This violence not only causes profound suffering for frontline workers, it also costs our health care system dearly. The rate of increase in violence-related lost-time claims was three times higher for health care workers than for police and correctional officers combined over a 10-year period. In the province of Ontario alone, health care workers collectively missed about 25,300 days of work, or more than 69 years, due to workplace violence and harassment in a single year.

Every time a patient gets frustrated and violent, another nurse decides that enough is enough and considers changing careers. All this adds up to a system that fails nurses and our patients alike.

This disturbing reality recently received attention from the federal government. Canada’s first parliamentary study into this issue is proof positive that it has now become a national concern.

The study was conducted by the multi-partisan House of Commons Standing Committee on Health, which released its final report in June. The report made sweeping recommendations, outlining a clear set of actions that federal, provincial and territorial governments can take to help stem the crisis.

Many of these recommendations echoed the measures nurses called for.

These measures include developing a pan-Canadian violence-prevention framework, establishing a hub for sharing best practices, collecting Canada-wide data, amending the Criminal Code to hold perpetrators accountable and providing targeted federal funding for violence-prevention infrastructure.

Critically, the report recommends that the federal government work with provinces and territories to update Canada’s health human resources strategy to address the major staffing shortages being experienced across the country.

This parliamentary study follows concerted efforts by nurses unions to bring national attention to the pervasive violence we face on the job. With health care workers experiencing rates of violence four times higher than any other profession, we can no longer afford the status quo.

There’s no silver bullet to ending violence in health care. Addressing the root causes of this crisis will require collaboration between federal, provincial and territorial governments, along with nurses and stakeholders.

But through evidence and action Canada can make major strides towards creating a healthier and safer health care system for everyone.

Nurses, health care workers and stakeholders are calling a Code White, and it’s time for Canada’s premiers to respond.

Linda Silas is a nurse and president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions. Tracy Zambory is a nurse and president of the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses.