The temporary closure of the obstetrics unit at Stanton Hospital is almost directly tied to ongoing low morale among nurses and it is possible low levels of service will spread to other departments if retention isn’t fully addressed, says a representative of the nurse’s union.
Tina Drew, Local 11 president of the Union of Northern Workers which represents Stanton Territorial Hospital workers said that complaints have been compiling in recent years about the lack of staffing supports all throughout the health facility.
“I’m not surprised because we have been talking about the staff shortage in six areas of the hospitals for 18 months,” she said when asked for a reaction on the unit’s closure.
The obstetrics unit has 13.5 full time positions. Six are vacant.
“The issue right now is that before this, locums were coming up and were propping up the system,” she said, adding that is not currently the case and management has not found a solution.
“So we are not able to cover the six positions that are not staffed on obstetrics at this time.”
Whether locums needed will return in February or whether those positions will be filled with permanent staff will likely factor into whether the unit is able to return to service, she said.
While the burnout rate can be seen across the hospital, Drew said it is especially acute with the obstetrics unit.
“The burnout in other areas of the hospital isn’t as much because staff on obstetrics feel that there’s an extra nurse needed every day, every night due to workload issues” she said, noting that most workers she has heard from believe there should be four workers per shift to adequately serve mothers and babies.
“We’re unsure if it’s being considered by management.”
The unit isn’t alone. Drew said since May 2020, she has been part of monthly joint consultations between the union executive and senior management of the hospital where complaints have been expressed from multiple departments.
“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.
Overtime and vacation
Some nurses who NNSL Media spoke with this week have echoed these sentiments, saying that low staff levels leads to excessive daily overtime calls to fill shifts as well as massive turnover across the whole hospital, especially within the last two years.
“One. Hundred. Percent. There’s been a mass exodus of nurses in multiple departments,” said one nurse regarding people leaving since at least the pandemic. “Mass exodus from emerge has led to the whole department being run by locums. ICU, same thing. OBS same thing. Every single department has been affected by this turnover.”
Ultimately the GNWT needs to address retention of workers rather than focusing so much on more recruitment, Drew said, which means ensuring nurses get the paid vacation that they are entitled in their contracts.
“The staff will leave if they’re not going to be able to take the vacation and that’s why people are leaving to go to different jobs. They can get time off with their families.”
Gayla Thunstrom, president of the UNW said in a statement on Nov. 25 that lack of staffing at Stanton has been continuous for many years.
“The UNW has been hearing about issues stemming from lack of healthcare staff since before the Covid-19 pandemic,” she said. “This is a systemic issue that is rooted in a long history of underfunding healthcare and health support programs.
“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.”
Thunstrom added that OBS has been one of the hardest departments to staff for many years and that the union continues to advocate for quality health care for northerners.
“The decision to send patients south is devastating not only for the families affected, but also for the healthcare workers in OBS, as they are naturally concerned for the comfort and wellbeing of their patients,” she said.
“The UNW feels for the families affected by this nursing shortage, and we recognize that this must be especially difficult for families in more remote communities who must now travel even farther from their homes and support networks for care.”
With retention being one of the biggest challenges facing healthcare right now, employers need to treat workers fairly and find creative solutions to the pressures that workers are facing. Band-aid solutions that fail to address the systemic issues will only continue to prolong the problem.”
NNSL Media submitted questions to the Department of Health and Social Services on Nov. 23 but didn’t receive a response before Yellowknifer press deadline.