Reduced staff at the NWT Health and Social Services Authority (NTHSSA) might limit intensive care unit capacity to no more than two patients at Stanton Territorial Hospital, said Health Minister Julie Green on Aug. 10.
The ICU is down to two critical care beds and two lower acuity beds, from the regular four critical care beds, according to a notification sent “on behalf” of Green, posted on the Facebook page of Environment and Natural Resources Minister and Nahendeh MLA Shane Thompson.
“While there are no current impacts to patients admitted to Stanton, if there are more than two critical level patients at Stanton they may be either diverted to Alberta before admission or stabilized and moved to Alberta when able,” Green said.
The service reduction might mean that critical care patients who can’t receive necessary treatment in the NWT will be transferred south more often than usual.
“This is being driven by a combination of difficulties in recruitment, a highly competitive job market for healthcare professionals and vacancies caused by departures or retirements,” the Health minister said.
The capacity issues might last until the end of September, according to Green.
The NTHSSA is working to close gaps in staffing before they impact services, and any service reductions or closures will be communicated to staff and the public, she added.
The service levels portal of the NTHSSA shows health services are closed in Jean Marie River, at emergency status in Fort Providence and at reduced status for Yellowknife Public Health, Fort Resolution, Délı̨nę, Fort Good Hope, Tuktoyaktuk and Aklavik.
Although that site says Wekweètì has regular health service operations, the Facebook page for the Tłı̨chǫ Community Services Agency shows a notice stating there will be no health-care provider in the community from Aug. 15 to Aug. 23.
Wekweètì residents are advised to call the Behchokǫ̀ Health Centre if they need to speak with a nurse.
Stress causing burnout
A health-care worker who asked not to be named because they are not authorized to speak to the media said staff feel unsupported when they raise concerns about working short-staffed and are retiring early or leaving for other roles because of stress.
“Lack of vacation is causing burnout,” they said. “It’s a vicious cycle. Vacation (is) denied because of short staffing, leading to stress-related illnesses, thus increasing the vacancies. (There is) pressure to do overtime to fill shortfalls. It’s throughout the whole territory. Behchokǫ̀ can only offer emergency services only.”
In terms of nursing staff, the shortage in the NWT and Nunavut is part of a national problem that has become worse during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Registered Nurses Association of the NWT and Nunavut executive director Denise Bowen.
“This has lead to greater competition between provinces and territories vying for a decreasing nursing workforce across Canada, and some healthcare institutions have begun to offer recruitment bonuses, making recruitment to Northern nursing positions more difficult,” Bowen said.
Physician, surgeon turnover expected
The NTHSSA was aware as recently as June that healthcare coverage in Yellowknife would be reduced in the summer. In June, spokesperson David Maguire told Yellowknifer that five family physicians would be departing the city this year.
Four new physicians were hired and would be relocating to Yellowknife over the following six months.
“At Stanton we are currently seeing turnover in our general surgery unit,” Maguire said. “We have three general surgeons on staff when fully staffed — one recently retired, one is leaving in July (and) one is on parental leave.”
Two of the departing surgeons have expressed interest in serving as locums in the future.
However, Maguire also said the NTHSSA’s pool of long-term locum physicians would be used to fill gaps and for additional capacity.
“We have capacity booked into the next quarter and will continue to secure coverage as long as needed,” he said.
‘Healthcare professionals are leaving’
Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby said it’s disappointing considering that one of the priorities of the 19th legislative assembly was to increase numbers of healthcare professionals in the NWT.
”I’m concerned about the stress they’re under and whether those concerns, when raised to the minister, fall on deaf ears,” Nokleby said. “I reached out in the height of the pandemic to ask about stress. I know there was a feeling of locums getting preferential treatment and stress over having to work alongside southern workers when we were really closed up. Add on all the other factors and people are starting to leave the territory, which includes healthcare professionals.
”We’ve also had medevac issues in small communities so now how will they be impacted if there’s no bed available in Yellowknife?”
Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson said in an email Tuesday evening that the departures seemed “inevitable” after “years of failing to listen to hospital staff and a downward spiral in morale.
“People demanded throughout this pandemic that we invest in healthcare capacity and we failed to do to that in an effective way due to old grievances. It’s embarrassing we got here, and if management empowered their staff then we would not have trouble filling positions. Now I recognize this is part of global shortage in a highly competitive market for healthcare professionals. But breaking this cycle is going to take trusting our staff more, giving them a work environment where they want to stay, and increasing their benefits. The focus lately seems to have been shifted from patient care to one of making sure bureaucratic boxes are checked, something that is devastating to both patients and staff.”
Yellowknifer left messages with MLAs Caitlin Cleveland, Kevin O’Reilly and Lesa Semmler but did not receive a response by deadline.