Union demands action as cancer patients in N.L. diverting to Toronto for treatment

Some cancer patients in Newfoundland and Labrador will have to travel to Toronto for treatment.  (CBC - image credit)
Some cancer patients in Newfoundland and Labrador will have to travel to Toronto for treatment. (CBC - image credit)

Some cancer patients in Newfoundland and Labrador may be getting an unexpected trip to Toronto for treatment as the province struggles with a shortage of radiation therapists.

The shortage has led to the closure of one of the four radiation treatment suites at the Dr. H. Bliss Murphy Cancer Centre in St. John's, prompting Jerry Earle, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees, to call on the provincial government to find a quick solution.

"I understand, from talking to front-line workers in this particular facility, in the last year we've had seven resignations. Two in the last week alone," Earle said Thursday.

"This is not a large pool of employees. They're very specialized. At a full complement they have approximately 30."

Earle said the province can't afford to lose another employee with staffing down about 30 per cent.

He said staff normally see between 80 and 100 patients daily but with compressed hours they're treating about 20 to 25 per cent less — a significant drop because the centre is the only place in the province where radiation therapy is done.

"I can only imagine the stress that is placed on patients that have been diagnosed and expecting treatment but the staff feel stressed as well knowing that cannot not do the work that they would normally do," he said. "Additional pressures are placed on them. There's only so many treatments they can do per day."

Earle said the issue should have been addressed already but the province is in a crunch now and the problem needs to be fixed immediately.

"It comes down to retention. We've got to be competitive with the rest of the country and in this case, with these specialized individuals, probably competitive with the entirety of North America," said Earle.

"From what I'm hearing, we're not."

Danny Arensault/CBC
Danny Arensault/CBC

Health Minister Tom Osborne said the regional health authorities said his department is working with Eastern Health to address the staffing problem right now.

Funding has been increased for students studying radiation therapy outside the province and signing bonuses have been established to attract currently working therapists to the province, he said.

"We obviously need to look at why it is we have such a vacancy rate with our radiation therapists and I'm more than happy to work with the health authorities and the union to try and determine what it is we need to do," Osborne said.

For now, Osborne said, there's a partnership with the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto to provide radiation therapy to patients from N.L. with all costs covered.

Osborne said the Princess Margaret Cancer has already started scheduling patients but he's not sure how many people are being diverted or when diversions will begin.

"We recognize that it's not ideal. We do want to get back to the normal accommodation at Eastern Health," he said.

"It is a challenge that we are facing and an unfortunate challenge but we are certainly focused on trying to overcome it."

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