Nurse shortage has Abbotsford, B.C., emergency room looking like a 'war zone,' union says

The B.C. Nurses' Union says a chronic nurse shortage has staff of the Abbotsford Regional Hospital's emergency room running ragged — and is costing taxpayers as Fraser Health fills the gap with out-of-province contract staff.

Gayle Duteil, president of the union, says the department has had more than 30 vacancies — about a third of its roster — for almost two years. She says the shortfall is leaving the remaining nurses overworked and stressed, leading to rapid turnover of highly trained emergency nurses.

"These nurses do not grow on trees, and yet they are coming in the front door and leaving through the back door," Duteil said.

Duteil said the staffing situation is also affecting patient care, with the department running at more than 120 per cent patient capacity.

"It was shocking. It reminded me of a war zone," Duteil said of a recent visit to the department. "There were three patients behind a curtain meant for one."

Two patients have died in recent weeks after being discharged from the hospital's emergency room. The union and the health authority both declined to say whether the staffing shortage was a factor in either case.

Health authority slow to act, CEO says

Michael Marchbank, CEO of Fraser Health, says the health authority is aware of the shortage and is working to train more nurses to work in the ER.

He admits Fraser Health has been slow to act on the problem, saying it will take time for the new training investments to catch up to the shortfall.

"The health authorities, including ourselves, could have been quicker off the mark in identifying the shortage issues around specialty care," Marchbank said.

Marchbank said 17 more nurses will be trained for ER work by the end of the year, and a dozen are set to return from leave, which he says will help with the staffing crunch.

In the meantime, Marchbank said the gaps are being filled with casual staff, staff from other departments, staff working overtime, and agency-supplied nurses from out of province.

Duteil says those agency nurses are costing the health authority four times as much as a B.C. registered nurse.

Retention the problem, not recruitment

But Duteil says the main problem isn't recruitment — it's retention. She says a core group of nurses have been hanging in, but the working conditions are causing high rates of burnout, with some nurses leaving after only a few months.

"It's a toxic work environment," Duetil said. "It has been for a period of time, and the management of this health authority has done very little to address it."

Marchbank says his team is aware of the retention issue, and will be working with the department to solve it.

"We want to work with the front-line staff to understand what their concerns are and address them where we can," Marchbank said.

With files from Tina Lovgreen.