A drunk driver arrives home safely having avoided killing anyone on the way. They figure it’s all good, risks were taken but they got home. Why change?
This metaphor was applied to the situation at Stanton Territorial Hospital by a nurse explaining how a billion dollar hospital cannot deliver babies for the next two months, if not longer. The driver in this case is the GNWT Department of Health. For years, warnings from hospital nurses have gone unheeded, workplace health risks have been dismissed. Now the family car has gone off the road and Northern families are paying the price.
Health care professionals – dedicated, well-trained, valuable individuals – are disappearing in droves, finding work elsewhere outside their chosen specialty. They’ve given up.
Health Minister Julie Green confirmed 46 empty shifts in the hospital’s obstetrics department. She also said she was alerted to the break in the system last Friday. Yet the warning signs were all there and have been for years.
Tina Drew, UNW Local 11 president, said union leadership has been telling senior hospital management about similar problems in at least six departments for the last 18 months. “We’ve submitted numerous forms stating that we’re having a crisis situation and the most common one is from obstetrics, but also ICU, and emergency about shortage of staff on shift,” she said.
Has it been going on for even longer?
The UNW statement issued yesterday quoting their new president, Gayla Thunstrom, bore eerie similarities to a letter sent by her predecessor, Todd Parsons, to the deputy minister of Health and Social Services, Bruce Cooper, in July 2019.
“The common theme that I have heard from members is that morale is at an all-time low at Stanton,” Parson wrote in 2019. “Workers have stated they do not want to voice their concerns to management, for fear of reprisal.”
He referred to multiple 16-hour shifts in a row endured by “overworked and exhausted” nurses due to staff shortages and procedures “cancelled, postponed, or redirected our of territory.”
“I suggest that it will continue to be very difficult to recruit strong qualified workers to the North if the morale is so low, and personal safety is an issue. This has become a vicious circle.”
Apparently nothing has changed.
“The UNW has been hearing about issues stemming from lack of healthcare staff since before the Covid-19 pandemic,” Thurnstrom said Nov. 25.
“We continue to hear that morale is low at Stanton, particularly because of short-staffing. The lack of staff sets off a ripple effect resulting in workers getting less time off, working longer hours, taking on additional duties, and having to cover more shifts. This situation affects all our healthcare workers, not just nurses.”
These are not our words, these are from the people who deliver babies.
Families, meanwhile, especially those from smaller communities in the Northwest Territories, who end up expending more effort and money to be even farther away from their support systems, are “devastated,” as are Yellowknife mothers who have been blindsided by the news.
So what happens now? Questioned in the legislature earlier this week, Green didn’t offer much of a response beyond an emotionless defence of her department, as seems to be the pattern from NWT ministers challenged on the performance of those working underneath them. They seem willing to spend even their own political capital to avoid acknowledging a problem and directing their focus and considerable departmental resources on a fix.
It’s true that Green hasn’t had the smoothest ride as health minister, taking over for Diane Archie after the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Her role is to support her department, yes, but also to challenge it to be better when it is obviously not doing the job.
There’s too much at stake here to engage in further inaction. What will be the next critical hospital ward to fail?