Money alone won't fix PEI's nursing crisis

Despite incentives to enhance recruitment and retention, statistics show PEI lost 400 nurses between 2020 and 2022, a number Health PEI contends is due to a change in how nursing positions are calculated.

Health PEI CEO Dr Michael Gardam does say a chronic shortage of staff is negatively impacting workplace quality.

“We have people working overtime and additional shifts. It’s this negative feedback loop, where the worse it gets, the faster it gets even worse.”

Dr Gardam acknowledges staffing issues are not all about money.

“It’s really about how many hours do you have to work a week and are we asking you to stay for additional shifts because there is no one coming in behind you?”

An Island RN, who says it was her lifelong dream to become a critical care nurse, agrees. “It was my heart and soul, but it was also a legitimate toxic relationship.” The Graphic has agreed to withhold her name because she still works with Health PEI.

“I couldn’t be there for my family, I started to withdraw from activities I used to enjoy and stopped seeing my friends altogether. I was just totally consumed by my work,” she says.

In response to the crisis, the provincial government initiated $8 million in retention bonuses for specific health care workers, including nurses. The controversial plan was run out of the premier’s office with the Health PEI board not included in its planning, former board chairman Derek Key told a legislative committee.

Dr Gardam said incentives offered by the province will not fix the issue.

“They work briefly for people to feel noticed and then they go off and do their own thing anyway,” he said. “We have a lot of people who are unhappy in the workplace and that’s no real big surprise. There’s not one easy fix, it’s multiple things we’re trying to fix all at once.”

That’s why financial incentives by themselves are ineffective, says the nurse.

“We just end up getting taxed through the nose on it.”

Health PEI’s 2020-21 annual report listed 2,280 nurses of all types working in PEI. The most recent annual report, released November 8, 2022, listed only 1,862 nurses.

Health PEI communications officer Everton McLean said the difference comes from how the number of nurses is calculated and does not reflect an actual loss of over 400 staff. Neither Health PEI nor Department of Health and Wellness offered any insight into how or why the nurse calculation changed.

Since 2020 the PEI government has offered financial incentives in an attempt to lure nurses to the province.

Students completing their last year of a recognized Master of Nursing or Nurse Practitioner program are offered a $5,000 incentive for a two-year term or 3,900 hours at Health PEI.

Out of province NPs with at least two years experience can receive $15,000 in exchange for a three-year work commitment.

Island residents are not eligible for this incentive even if they possess the necessary work and education.

RNs who have graduated within 12 months and those with experience are eligible for a $5,000 incentive in return for 1,950 hours of work. Out of province candidates are also eligible for up to $10,000 in re-location assistance. The province said this is available for permanent positions at the discretion of the hiring manager.

There are currently 10 full-time and six part-time NP positions available on government’s external job bank. Twenty positions are open for RNs.

UPEI has a dedicated nurse practitioner stream in its Master of Nursing program, but no seats set aside specifically for Islanders. As well the province does not offer financial or educational support to students in exchange for future work commitments.

Although no UPEI seat is specifically allocated to an Islander, all students must maintain active practising nurse registration with the College of Registered Nurses of Prince Edward Island, says UPEI communications officer Melanie Taylor. “So, most are Islanders who have always lived here, some have moved back home or others have come from away,” Ms Taylor said.

UPEI does not track graduates to learn where they are working.

The registered nurse who spoke to The Graphic is no longer working in an emergency department and is not surprised so many positions go unfilled. Work stress is only increasing.

“Unless the government starts putting money where it actually needs to go I see stories like what happened in New Brunswick happening here. People dying in waiting rooms, because one triage nurse cannot be responsible for that many patients in a waiting room while still being expected to support the department.”

Dylan Desroche, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Graphic