'We need to stop this': Some N.S. hospital units have 80% nurse vacancy rates

Nurse vacancy rates in some hospital units in Nova Scotia are at 80 per cent. (Getty Images - image credit)
Nurse vacancy rates in some hospital units in Nova Scotia are at 80 per cent. (Getty Images - image credit)

Vacancy rates for registered nurses, licensed practical nurses and nurse practitioners are as high as 80 per cent at some Nova Scotia hospitals.

The province's nursing unions say those job vacancies mean the nurses who are left working in understaffed units are sometimes working 24-hour shifts, working six days a week, going months without a vacation day and handling double the usual number of patients.

According to new numbers from Nova Scotia Health, 18 units at regional hospitals had a vacancy rate of 50 per cent or more as of Dec. 31. That means a handful of nurses are left to pick up the slack.

"It's really difficult to work short on a good day," said Janet Hazelton, president of the Nova Scotia Nurses' Union. "When you work one nurse short it's very difficult. When you work five or six nurses short, it's impossible."

The highest vacancy rates are an 80 per cent LPN (licensed practical nurse) vacancy rate in the emergency department at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital, and an 83 per cent nurse practitioner vacancy rate in the mental health and addictions unit at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital.

David Laughlin/CBC
David Laughlin/CBC

The rates appear to be climbing quickly. Nova Scotia Health's emergency department vacancy rate numbers from the end of November show lower vacancy rates at six of the 10 regional hospitals.

At the Aberdeen Hospital and the Colchester East Hants Health Centre, vacancy rates for registered nurses in the emergency department grew by more than 10 per cent in a month.

Hazelton said these numbers aren't a surprise to her. She said current working conditions in hospitals are driving nurses away.

She said many are going to part-time, switching to travel nursing, or leaving the profession altogether.

She said when experienced nurses leave the profession, it impacts new nurses who require mentorship. This can add to the high rates of burnout in all stages of the career.

Last week, Michelle Thompson, the province's health minister, told CBC's Information Morning Halifax: "At Nova Scotia Health, we could accept 1,500 nurses today."

Hugh Gillis, first vice-president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, said the number is concerning. The union represents nurses at the QEII Hospital in Halifax and some other facilities in the province.

"These vacancy rates clearly tell a story, and that story is we're in a health-care crisis in this province, our emergency rooms are in a health-care crisis, and when the Minister of Health says that they need 1,500 nurses, that's all you need to know."

But Hazelton said having more nurses isn't the answer if they don't continue to work.

"As quickly as we can attract, we're losing," she said. "So, the issue is that we have to figure out how to retain our nurses, and the only way to do that is providing them with a work-life balance."

Rate of overall nursing vacancies in N.S. hospitals

ERs 'a house that's in the middle of a hurricane'

In the past week, two N.S. families have spoken out about a loved one who died after waiting for hours without being seen by a doctor in an emergency department.

Doctors and nurses alike have said the province's emergency departments are struggling, but are far from the only weak link in the system.

Cathy MacNeil, a retired registered nurse and a former ER manager, told CBC Nova Scotia News At Six she considers emergency departments "a house that's in the middle of a hurricane."

Ali Holthoff/Facebook
Ali Holthoff/Facebook

Those who work in the field say the situation in hospitals has been a long time coming, and many are just catching on now.

"This has been going on for so long, actually for decades, and not just in Nova Scotia across the country," MacNeil said. "But to arrive at this point so many years later, it's just complete frustration."

She said high vacancy rates among nurses have an impact that reaches far beyond ERs.

"When you have vacancies of that nature, then everybody … is stressed to the max," she said.

"When you don't have nursing staff … beds are closed, patients are not seen, [operating rooms] can't continue, clinics can't open, and this has a domino effect on the system."

Hazelton said unions have been trying to sound the alarm on the current crisis for decades.

"We've been saying it for many, many years that if you don't address the health human resource issue within health care, we're going to be in a crisis, and here we are. No surprise to us."

What needs to change

On Jan. 9, NSGEU sent a letter to Karen Oldfield, president and CEO of Nova Scotia Health, and copied the premier, the health minister and the leaders of other political parties. It painted a picture of the "chaos" in hospitals.

Along with the letter, the union also provided a list of 59 recommendations that resulted from meetings with nursing staff across the province.

The suggestions covered topics from recruitment and retention, to morale, to safety challenges. Eighteen focused on staffing issues.

Gillis said the union is looking forward to a response.

"Government needs to listen to our front-line workers and try to implement some of these suggestions," he said.

Hazelton said though there are many areas that desperately need improvement, one message needs to be clear.

"As a collective union, employer and government, we need to stop this. We need to come up with solutions. We can't just say, 'This is gonna fix itself', because it's not. We need to sit at a table and figure this out."

Data from Nova Scotia Health details the vacancy rate for nurses at the province's 10 regional hospitals.

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