Nursing shortage could lead to hospital meltdown: union

Grievances filed with the union representing nurses at Whitehorse General Hospital have gone up “significantly” over the past year.

Grievances filed with the union representing nurses at Whitehorse General Hospital have gone up “significantly” over the past year.

The primary source of the problem is staff shortages, say union officials.

And it is a wound that, if allowed to fester, could spark a backlash amongst nursing staff, said Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada president Michele Demers from Ottawa on Thursday.

“I fear that if the employer doesn’t react and act soon, that they are at risk of losing people,” said Demers.

“They’ll either decide to quit and go somewhere else or they’ll burn out. When people are stretched to the limit, in terms of the hours they work and leave provisions being denied and having to cover more of a workload than normal — everything takes other proportions,” she said.

“And to see the number of grievances increase, to me, is just the tip of the iceberg. The situation is not good, the morale is low, people are discouraged, there is the risk of burnout.”

The professional institute represents about 120 workers at the hospital, of which 90 per cent are nurses.

Demers is the latest to sound alarm bells about the shortage of nurses and doctors at the Whitehorse hospital.

But while that clamour grows, the Yukon Party government and the Whitehorse Hospital Corporation appear focused on containing public worries instead of offering solutions.

Meanwhile, working conditions at the hospital are becoming a central theme to the story.

Several anonymous sources have come forward to the News with startling allegations. All refuse to go on the record, citing fears of retribution.

Hospital Corp. chief executive officer Michael Aeberhardt has refused requests for interviews.

The information clampdown continues.

The News was not permitted to attend the hospital’s board of governors’ meeting on Wednesday.

“The press has no place at our boardroom table,” said board chairman Craig Tuton. “It has never been our past practice; I don’t see any value.”

Tuton promised a copy of the meeting’s agenda.

But, apparently, Aeberhardt overruled him.

“I have been advised by the CEO that all dealings with the media must be approved by him, so I have forwarded your request (for the agenda),” wrote a hospital spokesperson in an e-mail Thursday.

The agenda wasn’t released.

At the Yukon legislature, hospital staff shortages continued to dominate question period.

Last week, the shortage of long-term and intensive care beds at the hospital was described as a “crisis” by Yukon Medical Association president Dr. Rao Tadepalli.

The government and Aeberhardt countered by announcing 12 long-term beds to be opened at Copper Ridge Place and by challenging Tadepalli’s assertions, respectively.

On Thursday, Liberal leader Arthur Mitchell continued to press the government on its refusal to concede just how big the hospital’s staffing problem is.

“Can this minister give this house his complete assurance that he supports the position of the board chair and the CEO on this issue and that he feels comfortable disregarding the concerns of doctors and nurses?” asked Mitchell.

The only thing needed to be disregarded “is the attempt by the leader of the official opposition to inflame health-care and public perception of this,” replied Health and Social Services Minister Brad Cathers.

“There are challenges within the Yukon health-care system as there are within every system in the country but, on the balance, our system compares extremely well with every jurisdiction in this country.”

Mitchell’s choice of the word “crisis” isn’t correct, added Cathers in the legislature.

Outside the legislature, Cathers is in seclusion.

Communications co-ordinator Albert Petersen was openly hostile to reporters seeking to question Cathers on the issue.

On Thursday, he deferred questions to the Hospital Corporation and refused to present the News’ questions to Cathers.

The growing number of grievances filed at the hospital center on the shortage of nursing staff and problems that stem from it.

“I think that the nucleus of the problem is a shortage of staff,” said Demers. “People are being asked to cover in areas they are not necessarily assigned to.”

Nurses have seen vacation leave slashed or denied and have come up against a hospital administration that is trying to counter some parts of the collective agreement they work under, she said.

She did not provide specific details.

The hospital continues to hire casual, on-call nurses rather than permanent ones — and that seems to be exacerbating the problem, said Demers.

“So, I don’t know if it’s a question of bad planning, a shortage of recruits out of nursing school, or a combination of both, but my understanding is that the management of the hospital and maybe the territorial government will definitely have to look into the situation, think outside the box to find creative ways of recruiting nurses and making them offers of permanent status versus casual on-call.

“It’s very difficult to attract someone (when you) say, ‘We’ll call you when we need you.’”

One quarter of the nurses at Whitehorse General Hospital are casual on-call workers, said Demers.

Following the Hospital Corp.’s board meeting, Tuton agreed to answer questions about the state of the hospital.

There is a staffing crunch in several areas, he said.

“It’s not just here, but the challenges reach across the country,” said Tuton.

“Yes, it is true that we are looking at shortages, and I’m pretty sure the shortages are in areas of the operating room, the intensive-care unit and in medical imaging.

“We’re looking for staff to fill those positions now.”

The hospital is looking to train people from within the hospital for the operating room shortages rather than exclusively trying to recruit new workers, said Tuton.

“That will give us a little more stability.”

Morale has taken a hit as a result of some of the shortages, he said.

“There are some people who are putting in huge amounts of hours to provide the health care that everybody expects,” said Tuton. “I think having said that, part of that process is the stress rise. And, of course, with that there could be some morale issues.”

It’s hard recruiting staff, he said.

But the hospital’s staff is second-to-none and their passion sees them meeting demands ordinary people couldn’t, he added.

Tuton declined to comment on the job Aeberhardt is doing.

Asked if concerns about the CEO have come to his attention, he said no.

But Tuton did confirm a few grievances about the hospital brought forward anonymously to the News.

After being appointed in October, one of his first decisions was to have the hospital’s voice-messaging system removed.

“There was an attempt at making the communication system a little more quiet in the hospital, less of a burden to patients,” said Tuton.

It made it difficult for nurses to page doctors, slowing response times.

“After having initiated that, it was found that there were a lot of spaces and spots that weren’t able to receive reception from either pagers or cellphones.”

The system has been put back to how it was, he said.

Aeberhardt has also restricted the number of parking spaces available to nurses. He’s issued violators tickets.

But allegations the government is aware that Aeberhardt is having difficulty in his post are not true, said Tuton.

“The government doesn’t have a role to play; the Hospital Corporation is a separate entity.”

Some are now leaping to Aeberhardt’s defence.

“This poor man, he’s only been here seven months,” said Yukon Registered Nurses Association president Paula Bilton.

“He didn’t create these problems, he inherited them. He’s very wise and a very good leader, and he is very much aware of the problems with the shortages.

“I feel positive that we can work well with him.”

Still, fixing the nurse shortage is Bilton’s main priority.

“We’ve been talking about this for over 10 years; this is no surprise, this has all been projected to happen,” said Bilton.

“This is only the tip of the iceberg because there aren’t enough nurses coming out of nursing schools to meet the projected need in the future.”

Whitehorse Hospital chief of staff Dr. Graham Henderson didn’t return phone calls.

Thursday’s board meeting focused on the corporation’s upcoming annual general meeting, said Tuton.