FREDERICTON — Calls are increasing across the Maritimes for governments to tackle labour shortages in the health-care sector, as hospitals are being forced to close emergency rooms now that weary staff are taking summer vacations to recover from pandemic-related stress.
In New Brunswick, health-care workers are leaving the province because of poor working conditions, non-competitive salaries and unreasonable workloads, according to Liberal health critic Jean-Claude D'Amours.
In Prince Edward Island, staff shortages are so acute at the Western Hospital in Alberton that its emergency department can be forced to close if one person is off sick, says Green Party health critic Michele Beaton. Difficulties recruiting and retaining health-care staff have been growing in the province for years, she said.
"We need a very specific and strategic plan in order to ensure that the people working within the system are treated well," Beaton said in a recent interview.
Last week, New Brunswick Health Minister Dorothy Shephard said the province was recruiting travelling nurses and encouraging retired nurses to re-enter the workforce to cover vacations.
Since April 1, the Horizon Health Network — operator of New Brunswick's English-language hospitals — has hired 11 retirees and about 180 nursing students to work this summer. Meanwhile, the Vitalité Health Network — operator of its French-language hospitals — has hired 200 nursing students.
"We recognize the challenges in our health-care system's workforce, and there are many long-term efforts underway to improve the situation," New Brunswick Labour Minister Trevor Holder said in a statement. "While we are making significant progress, it will take time to fully address these challenges."
The staff shortages have prompted intermittent overnight closures of some hospital emergency departments. The Horizon network posted a tweet on June 24, saying it was experiencing critical staff shortages, and it cautioned that patients with non-urgent medical issues could face long wait times.
The tweet prompted a reaction on Twitter.
"It's been like this for years and getting worse," one person wrote. "I'm scared if my illness were to worsen, I wouldn't survive." Another person said the government needs to spend some of its budget surplus on improving working conditions at health centres.
Back in P.E.I., Beaton said the western part of the province has "basically no walk-in clinics, so people have no other option than to visit an emergency department." When emergency rooms close, she said, "people are going to be travelling over an hour to get to the next facility to get the care they need."
Health PEI spokesperson Jessica Bruce said the small staff at Western Hospital is working hard to prevent unplanned interruptions in service. "We continue to look at a variety of options to make sure that patients get the care that they need," she said.
In Nova Scotia, the province's nurses have been demanding action to address chronic staffing shortages that they say have been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Nova Scotia Nurses' Union says there are about 1,400 vacancies for registered nurses, and 250 spots open for licenced practical nurses.
Nova Scotia's Progressive Conservative government made an election campaign pledge to spend heavily on the province's ailing health system. The $13.2-billion budget for the 2022-23 fiscal year, tabled in March, contains $5.7 billion for health care — an increase of $413.4 million compared to last year's spending. But Premier Tim Houston has warned residents not to expect rapid change.
Dr. Mark MacMillan, president of the New Brunswick Medical Society, said the growing number of job vacancies in health care across Canada is concerning.
"We've seen this human health resource issue coming toward us for years," he said in a recent interview. "COVID-19 has certainly escalated that issue and unmasked how fragile the health-care system was overall — not just New Brunswick but all across the country."
MacMillan said action by governments is needed now, but it will require a long-term solution.
"Five, 10, 15 years from now, what are the patient demographics going to be? What are the needs in this province? How many physicians do we need in northern New Brunswick, southern New Brunswick, east and west? How many nurses do we need per unit? We need to be more proactive," he said.
Staff members in the health-care sector are tired and need a break from the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.
"The last two and a half years have been very stressful and we really have to ensure these physicians and nurses get their time off for their own mental health," he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 3, 2022.
Kevin Bissett, The Canadian Press