The president of the New Brunswick Nurses Union says the recent warning for people to stay away from two of the province’s major emergency departments isn’t just because nurses are on vacation – it’s due to sustained burnout and vacancies within the health system.
On Friday, Aug. 26, Horizon Health Network asked patients with non-life-threatening medical needs not to come to The Moncton Hospital or the Saint John Regional Hospital EDs, “as (it) did not have capacity to triage and care for these patients.”
It cited the reason as a “critical nursing shortage.”
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Paula Doucet said the situation facing the two hospitals is something the union has been warning the leadership of the health department about for a while.
Interim Horizon Health Network CEO Margaret Melanson said the shortage of nurses was due to vacations and a large concert taking place in Dieppe that weekend, but also due to absences relating to COVID-19.
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Doucet says that is far from reality.
“The public announcement around that unfortunately was not taken well by many of the members that I represent because they felt they were being slighted for potentially taking some vacation,” she said.
She said the vacation that any nurse is taking is “well-deserved.”
“I think anytime a corporation speaks about their employees taking vacation affecting service, there is a larger problem,” she said. “The many years we’ve been talking about this dire nursing shortage that we’re in right now and that by not doing anything to mitigate, it brings us to where we are today.”
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On Aug. 18, the health authority celebrated the fact that it had recruited 1,300 health-care workers, with more than 50 per cent of those in the nursing field since April 1. However, in that time they lost 662 staff due to retirements, resignations and terminations, leaving a net gain of 638 employees over the last four months.
Melanson promised there would be noticeable change on the front lines in “a matter of weeks.”
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For Doucet, the working conditions, which continue to be poor, means more nurses are likely to leave. It means many New Brunswickers will go without the health care they deserve, she explained.
“We know that there are 63,000 New Brunswickers without a primary care provider. That’s no nurse practitioner, no family doctor, and no access to health care,” she said. “Their only access point is the emergency department. So, regardless, if their issue is life-threatening or a long-term ailment, they have rights to health care in New Brunswick, and in Canada, and we’re not meeting that need.”
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Doucet said recruitment is good, but training nurses to move into departments like emergency and the intensive care unit takes time and mentorship, something the system, in its current capacity, doesn’t allow for.
“To be thrown into a high acuity area without the mentoring and the training is a very scary situation not only for you as a professional but for the patients who are entrusted to your care,” she said.
She said nurses are also dealing with poor morale.
“Nurses are fed up, they’re exhausted,” she said. “In some instances, they feel like they are demoralized. They feel like they’re getting the short end of the stick. They are being criticized.”
Doucet said nurses have been on the front lines and it is time for those difficult conversations, which must include nurses and doctors.
“We’re having a hard time delivering health care as it is now,” she said. “We need to identify what short-term, medium-term and long-term goals (will) get us out of the mess we’re in in health care right now.”
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