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May 16, 2023

Reigniting Health Care: nursing leaders gather to discuss the most pressing issues facing Canada’s health care system

In celebration of National Nursing Week, the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions (CFNU) hosted a live streamed panel with nursing leaders from coast to coast. Reigniting Health Care explores the most pressing issues facing Canada’s nurses, including topics such as nurse-patient ratios, recruitment and retention strategies, and privatization. Leaders from nursing unions across the country shared updates from their respective provinces, both their victories and challenges.

Linda Silas, CFNU President, moderated the discussion, expressing gratitude to nurses for their dedication and hard work. She highlighted the significance of the panel’s serious tone and the need to address important issues during Nursing Week.

The panel began with Dr. James Buchan, a senior fellow at the Health Foundation in London, UK. On solving the nursing shortage, Dr. Buchan stressed relying on the resilience of nurses is not a proper solution. The scale of the actual and potential trauma and burnout in the nursing workforce is huge, he explained.

Dr. Buchan explained every country needs comprehensive plans to protect and invest in the nursing workforce, aiming for longer-term sustainability. These strategies should prioritize improving nurse retention and ensuring adequate domestic training capacity. At the international level, it is crucial to recognize the vulnerability of lower-income countries’ nursing workforce, which has been further affected by the pandemic.British Columbia has already headed some of Buchan’s advice. Aman Grewal, President of the British Columbia Nurses’ Union, shared positive news about the commitment of B.C. to nurse-patient ratios, becoming the first province in Canada to do so.

“I am very excited and optimistic that we have the potential to make a difference with ratios that my fellow nurses and the patients in our care can benefit from,” said Grewal. “We know that staffing ratios alone will not solve the staffing crisis. Effective recruitment strategies, as well as investments, must still be made in place to provide the relief necessary to make ratios work.”

Janet Hazelton, President of the Nova Scotia Nurses’ Union, spoke about the initiatives taken by the government in her province, including guaranteeing full-time jobs for new graduates in all categories of nurses and offering incentives such as bonuses to retain nurses. The Nova Scotia government’s efforts aim to address retention and recruitment challenges in the province.

“Our government, our current premier, was elected on the promise of fixing health care, and he and his team have taken that very seriously,” said Hazelton. “This government promised to pay every … nurse a $10,000 as a thank-you bonus. If a nurse decided to stay for another two years, they get a subsequent $10,000. So that’s $20,000 that nurses are getting in our province to stay and work in our province, which is great.”

Barbara Brookins, President of the Prince Edward Island Nurses’ Union, highlighted the recent tentative agreement reached with employers after two years without a contract. The agreement includes incentives for long-service nurses and premiums for shift work to address recruitment challenges in areas that are difficult to fill.

“[The agreement] will actually provide us at least a baseline to recruit,” explained Brookins. “So what we’re looking at right now is a lot of recognition for retention, and that was a big thing among our membership.”

Eyasu Yakob, President of the Canadian Nursing Students’ Association, went on to explain that “investing in nursing students is investing in the future of health care.” He emphasized by supporting nursing students, we can help to ensure they are prepared to meet the challenges of a rapidly evolving health care system. This support can come in the form of financial aid, mentorship and educational resources. Ultimately, supporting nursing students will lead to better patient outcomes and a more robust health care system.

Darlene Jackson, President of Manitoba Nurses Union, mentioned the challenges her province is facing due to the government’s austerity agenda. The shortage of nurses is causing problems in emergency rooms and affecting patient care, especially for survivors of sexual assault.

“We’ve lost nine of our sexual assault nurse examiners. We have survivors of sexual assault and intimate violence being presented at our department … asked to go home, not to shower, and come back in eight or 16 hours when there’s a nurse available to do examinations,” said Jackson. “As a result, we have a program that is failing. We have sexual assault survivors that are not being treated.”

Jackson emphasized the need for frontline providers, such as nurses, to be included in decision-making processes to find effective solutions.

Next door in Saskatchewan, Tracy Zambory, President of the Saskatchewan Unions of Nurses, echoed similar concerns about the nursing shortage in her province.

“It really is scary. Our Jim Patterson Children’s Hospital, there are times when they’re 300 per cent over capacity,” explained Zambory. “Families are waiting in their cars in the parking lot with very sick children. And the registered nurses don’t know where to go next.”

To tackle the shortage, Zambory called for the establishment of a nursing task force, which would include frontline nurses, nurses unions, regulators and educators to foster a collaborative decision-making process. Nurses have a wealth of knowledge and solutions to address the nursing crisis in Saskatchewan, she concluded.

Yvette Coffey, President of the Registered Nurses’ Union NL, discussed the progress made in her province, including the establishment of a nursing think tank and improvements in the recruitment and retention of nurses. However, challenges remain, such as the shortage of registered nurses and the need for better wages to retain experienced nurses.

“We have a fairly collaborative relationship with our Department of Health and with our Premier,” said Coffey. “I don’t hold back, and one of [ours asks] is going to be money. We need to be putting money back into our publicly funded health care system.”

Along a similar track of better funding for the public delivery of health care, Heather Smith, President of the United Nurses of Alberta, highlighted the dangers of privatization in health care. She expressed concerns about the government’s underfunding of health care, leading to a crisis that is used as an excuse for privatization.

“It’s imperative in Ontario, as it is again in Alberta, that we never talk about publicly funded [health care] without talking about public delivery, because that is and has been proven is the best bang for taxpayer bucks,” explained Smith.

In Ontario, the Ford government continues the march toward private, for-profit health care at the expense of Ontarians’ health and pocketbooks, said Angela Preocanin, First-Vice President of the Ontario Nurses’ Association.“Premier Doug Ford manufactured a staffing crisis in hospitals with wage restraint law Bill 124, and he’s following the privatization playbook to a tee. We know private clinics siphon provincial funding from public hospital care. We know private clinics take staff away from public hospitals. We know private clinics filter what patients they see, only accepting patients with the simplest conditions.”

Paula Doucet, President of the New Brunswick Nurses’ Union, discussed the privatization efforts in her province and the negative impact it has on the public health care system.

“We have a premier who is pushing the private for-profit agenda as well in New Brunswick, taking public taxpayer dollars and moving them … into private entities for profit. It’s draining the public system. And more nurses … are leaving our public system to go to these private entities,” explained Doucet. “We need to really look at keeping the nurses in our system, and privatization is the very last thing that we want to do.”

Adriane Gear, First Vice-President of BCNU, celebrated a recent Supreme Court decision that upheld laws protecting equitable access to health care and prohibiting extra billing. She highlighted the role nurses played in raising awareness about extra billing and called for continued efforts to ensure public health care funding remains in the public system.

“We are very pleased that Canada’s highest court affirmed the laws ensuring equitable access to care,” said Gear. “The prohibition on extra billing is the essential mechanism to protect Medicare.”

Pauline Worsfold, Chairperson of the Canadian Health Coalition, stressed the importance of prioritizing patient care over profit in health care. She discussed the coalition’s research on extra billing and the disparities in costs between private for-profit clinics and public health care facilities.

“I’m a recovery room nurse, and there are big, big elections coming in … Alberta and Manitoba. I’m going to urge every single nurse this year that has a provincial election to vote like their lives depend on it. They need to vote for a party, a person who’s going to uphold the publicly funded, publicly delivered health care that every single person in Canada deserves,” said Worsfold. “Profit doesn’t care if you are sick, profit doesn’t care about the level of patient care delivery. But we do as nurses from coast to coast to coast, we care.”

You can watch an edited version of the panel discussion here: