Recruitment and retention is a problem in many medical fields, but a relentless coronavirus pandemic is probably not the best time to be short on respiratory therapists.
The Association of Allied Health Professionals (AAHP) is raising the alarm about overworked members in the Eastern Health region especially, where less than a dozen permanent float staff are finding themselves often working 24-hour shifts.
“That’s draining on the body, draining on the mind. We expect these people to be on their A game,” Gordon Piercey, president of the AAHP, told The Telegram last week.
The association already raised concerns in February, and Piercey says the strain was already showing at least a year or two before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“As president of the union, I was actually mobilizing to put some messaging out there this week, even before we had this exacerbation of COVID, because they’re already struggling,” he said. “I was very concerned, even before this happened, about how they were going to move through the holiday schedule and maintain all their services they’re currently doing.”
Respiratory therapists perform a variety of functions, including assisting anesthetists, operating ventilators and administering treatments such as asthma medication and oxygen — basically anything to do with airway management.
“Certainly in a respiratory pandemic, this has turned up the heat a lot for that group,” Piercey said.
They can also provide support in the community, he said, although that’s a rarity in this province, which has about 60 working respiratory therapists.
Piercey said the strain on resources is a multifaceted problem.
The College of the North Atlantic graduates about 10 respiratory therapists a year, but they aren’t all hired locally.
Piercey says he’s been pushing Eastern Health to hire more, although a cyberattack in October did diminish their online capabilities.
“We definitely need new blood in the system,” he said.
“When you’ve got your float team scheduled, there’s hardly any room for a sick call, a family emergency, a death in the family.”
That doesn’t include the possibility any of them may need to self-quarantine.
He said Eastern Health already recognizes how pressed they are for time because they get paid overtime for breaks — which they rarely get to take.
Piercey said he’s looking for a meeting with Health Minister Dr. John Haggie at his earliest convenience to discuss the situation.
He even raised the possibility of seconding staff from other health authorities, or other areas of Canada, as emergency relief.
“I actually worry that some of them are just going to get up and walk away and either look at other jurisdictions or the private sector.”
Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram