The gap between salaries for doctors and nurses working in the North and those working in the South is growing smaller, according to one health administrator, and that's just one of the things making it hard to keep health care services open in the Northwest Territories this summer.
"It's a national issue, not just a regional issue," said Arlene Jorgensen, chief operating officer of the Beaufort-Delta Region for the N.W.T. Health and and Social Services Authority. "We're struggling across the N.W.T. delivering services."
The regional division runs the Inuvik Regional Hospital and eight health centres with over 300 employees.
Starting July 29, three community health centres in the Beaufort-Delta region will be on emergency or reduced services, and that number could rise to four until Oct. 3. As of Thursday, five health centres in three other regions were also open for emergency care only.
It's part of a broader series of health care closures and service reductions happening across the N.W.T. — and much of the country — as health administrators struggle to find staff.
"There is just such a significant nursing and physician shortage across the country right now that it's really taking some extraordinary efforts to deliver the level of service we are," Jorgensen said in a conversation with CBC North's Wanda McLeod.
65 overtime shifts
Jorgensen said her team is still hoping to find enough staff in order to avert those planned closures, or any others. She's pleased that the region's operating room will remain open most of the summer, with the possible exception of two weeks in August.
But, she said, it hasn't been easy.
"The way we're able to keep those areas open is through the use of casual staff and to be honest, many of our existing staff working overtime shifts."
In acute care alone, Jorgensen said she's relying on 19 casuals over the summer as well as 65 overtime shifts from nurses.
She also has 44 casuals scheduled to work in community health centres in the region throughout the summer, and is still looking for more.
That means people seeking health care in the region aren't likely to see familiar faces.
"Because of the reliance on casual staff ... there hasn't been as consistent staffing or people who know their care as well," Jorgensen said.
Jorgensen says there's a fallout to that.
"It means that some of the regular checkups that folks normally would have, they're not getting them. And so it means that people stay away, even as opposed to having their regular checkup. And they often come in when they're sicker, which is a concern for us."
Wage gap shrinking
The health authority has hired a past nursing manager dedicated to looking for nurses, Jorgensen said.
She said the task force struck between the departments of Human Resources, Finance, and Health, as well as the three health authorities is looking into the possibility of offering recruitment bonuses or salary increases to attract and keep nurses.
"There used to be a greater difference between southern nursing salaries and northern nursing salaries, the same with physicians" she said. "And that gap has changed."
Another issue is making sure that nurses who are already committed to being here are getting paid fairly.
"We also want to make every effort to be able to give them holidays so that they have some quality of life or we'll lose them, too."
'We're there and we're available'
Jorgensen emphasized that health care is still available. If people are sick and need help, they should still seek care.
"We're still delivering services. We haven't shut down any health centre and we haven't shut down any emergency department in this region. We're really fortunate that we've been able to do that," she said.
"There may be some delays in things like an appointment with a physician, but certainly in terms of emergency care, we're there and we're available to provide support."
Jorgensen also said that health care staff are putting in extra hours to be able to provide these services.
"So kindness and patience on both sides always go further in helping us get through tough spots."