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Nurses' letter starts needed conversation

Last week, an anonymous nurse, or nurses, fired a volley of allegations at the territorial government.

In the anonymous letter obtained by Yellowknifer, dated “May 2019,” the author(s) stated a shortage of qualified health care staff was creating an unsafe working environment at the old Stanton Territorial Hospital.

Staffing shortages have become so severe, the authors say, that nurses are being forced to stay on the job when they are exhausted after a long shift.

“The government will say that this won’t be a challenge in the new hospital as there are more beds,” it states.

But more beds won't be any good without qualified doctors and nurses, it continues.

This shortage of qualified health care professionals is creating an intolerable workplace environment, the letter alleges.

Surgical operations are postponed, emergency department wait times are long and both patients and staff are suffering as a result.

“What will it take for our voices to be heard?” concludes the letter, which is signed by “Nurses of Northwest Territories.”

The territorial government needs to take this seriously.

It is clear Stanton's nurses believe their patients — and themselves — are in danger.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest the more patients assigned to a nurse, the higher the patients’ risk of death, infections, complications and falls.

Almost three in every five health care workers are suffering from overwork, according to a 2010 study funded by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board.

This situation is damaging to nurses' physical and mental health and is putting them at risk of burnout.

The study was conducted in four Ottawa-area hospitals. Almost 1,500 health care workers were surveyed and 57 per cent felt overloaded.

In an effort to cope, 51 per cent of those surveyed reported sleeping less and 18 per cent said they used alcohol or prescription drugs as stress relievers.

The excessive demands placed on the health care workers had an effect on the hospitals where they worked, because of greater staff turnover, lower productivity and absenteeism, researchers showed.

It’s clear we need more nurses but the numbers suggest we’re not heading in the right direction.

According to a 2009 report by the Canadian Nurses Association, Canada needed 11,000 more full-time nurses in 2007 to meet health care needs. The report also said “if the health needs of Canadians continue to change according to past trends, and if no new policies are implemented,” Canada will be short almost 60,000 nurses by 2022.

Here in the North we face our own set of challenges. It is notoriously difficult for many Northern industries to find and keep any sort of qualified professional.

Solutions must be found unless we want to burnout our caregivers.

In a response to the letter, Sue Cullen, CEO of the Northwest Territories Health and Services Authority, acknowledged that nursing shortages are an ongoing problem.

The transition to the new Stanton has also put the health care community under additional strain, her letter states.

“I recognize that Stanton has gone through a massive amount of change in the past few years and resources have been taxed with work related to preparing for transition to the new hospital,” she stated. “I believe we are nearing the peak of this change and appreciate this has put additional stress on the staff within the busiest care site in our system.”

There just isn't any more slack in the system and it's taking a toll, it would seem.

The reality is that health care is the biggest cost driver for any provincial or territorial government. In the NWT, about half a billion dollars out of a total budget of $1.8 billion has been set aside for the Department of Health and Social Services.

If the territory is going to increase its number of nurses and other health professionals, aside from the need nationally to get more students into these programs and lure them north once they've graduated, money will have to be diverted from somewhere else.

It's an incredibly difficult problem. The nurses' letter has begun a conversation that urgently needs to be had if the territory hopes to retain the integrity of its health care system.

Politicians and other decision-makers will need to take part in it as as well and talk to Northerners about what's at stake and what the options are.

Let us hope these discussions bear fruit because nurses are among the unsung heroes of this Earth. Finding more of them presents an extreme challenge with no easy fix in sight.