Healthcare is near the top of the priority list universally, that and housing.
The NWT has a shortage of both.
Stanton Territorial Hospital’s crisis — and similar situations in other NWT communities — isn’t getting better, perhaps worse, and it’s time for the GNWT to do something radical.
Last week, word broke from the Union of Northern Workers (UNW) that Stanton’s operating room nurses had alerted their employer of their distress due to understaffing. Five of those nurses out of 12 were able to work in the operating room on Sept. 6, according to union representative Tina Drew. Two other positions are filled, but those employees were unavailable, she said.
This has resulted in a situation that the nurses call “unsustainable,” as it has affected their mental, emotional and physical health, the UNW stated.
Of course it’s not just the operating room where health staff are suffering, but the problem in the OR has been dragging on and those in need of elective surgeries are either being sent south or simply told to keep waiting. The backlog is concerning. While a knee replacement, for example, isn’t a matter of life and death, it can be debilitating — waiting several months longer can trigger frustration and be demoralizing.
So what should the territorial government do? In fairness, the GNWT isn’t standing pat. It announced several measures in August intended to recruit and retain more nurses. There’s $1,000 for referring a nurse to the NWT. There’s $2,000 towards bringing loved ones to the territory during the holidays so that nurses can spend time with them. The GNWT is willing to pay travel costs to bring qualified nurses in from other countries. In addition, paramedics are being utilized in hospital and health centre settings to lighten the load.
Health Minister Julie Green estimated that these measures will cost the GNWT about $2.3 million.
But what is $2.3 million in the grand scheme of things? The Health department anticipates paying out $32.2 million in compensation and benefits to staff in 2022-23.
It’s time to dig even deeper.
Government of Canada data shows a median wage of $40 per hour for nurses nationally. The NWT is no laggard, offering a median hourly wage of $52.23 to nurses. That puts the territory second in Canada, trailing only Nunavut and its $67.83.
Those following the news know that Nunavut is still struggling to recruit and retain nurses despite the lofty wage. Health centres there occasionally face temporary closures because there’s not enough nurses to keep them running.
So the GNWT must be prepared to try something drastic. Some nurses won’t be interested in working in the North no matter what the rate of compensation, but others will make the jump if the price is right. Our government will need to offer more than what Nunavut is willing to pay.
Where would the money come from, you may ask. That is indeed the hard part, but options exist. Let’s look at the Aurora College transition to a polytechnic university. That process is in progress, but it could be delayed or halted in order to reroute those funds into landing more health staff for the territory?
The question is, are we prepared to get serious about attracting nurses or not? Aurora College is a longstanding institution that could continue to serve the territory. It’s not like we’re going to go without post-secondary options. Students can still pursue degrees in the south, with or without a polytechnic in the NWT.
Some may be aghast at the prospect of paying nurses so much, but it’s analogous to paying $600,000 for a Yellowknife home that sold for $450,000 a few years earlier. It’s what the market dictates.
And the benefits of bringing in more nurses are multifold. Not only will Yellowknife and territorial residents have better access to healthcare, our existing corps of nurses will have reinforcements and not constantly be on the verge of burnout.
Territorial politicians set a goal in June of seeing the NWT’s population grow by 25 per cent by 2043. That could happen without a polytechnic, but it’s much less likely to happen with dismal healthcare.