The health centre in Destruction Bay is seen in May. (Chris Windeyer/Yukon News)

Yukon Employees Union raises alarm over rural nursing

Nursing stations in Destruction Bay and Beaver Creek still only have one nurse each

The Yukon Employees Union wants the government to put more effort into recruiting nurses to work in the territory’s communities.

Union representatives handed out small first aid kits around Whitehorse June 30 suggesting that the way the health system is run could be putting nurses and patients at risk.

“If you have one nurse working 24/7 on call, they’re going to burn out…. People can make mistakes when they’re tired or overworked,” said union president Steve Geick.

Geick criticized the Yukon government for failing to follow through on its promise to hire more nurses to work in Destruction Bay and Beaver Creek.

As part of a memorandum of understanding signed this time last year, the government agreed to hire an extra nurse in both communities between May 1 and Sept. 30. For the rest of the year a single extra nurse would float between the two communities as needed.

But none of those positions have been filled. The nursing stations in Destruction Bay and Beaver Creek still only have one nurse each.

“There hasn’t been a second nurse in either one of those communities. Never,” Geick said. “Since we negotiated that collective agreement. There’s been no effort that I’ve seen to hire anybody.”

Health spokesperson Pat Living confirmed the jobs haven’t been filled but denied the government has been shirking its responsability to recruit nurses. The agreement with the union requires that the government make “every reasonable attempt to fill” the new positions when they are vacant. That’s what it’s been doing, she said.

The government has attended multiple job fairs, posted ongoing ads, and offered financial incentives, training and mentoring but hasn’t been able to hire anyone.

“We believe we have made more than every reasonable attempt to fill (the jobs),” she said.

Living said 64 nurses work in the communities outside of Whitehorse, not including at the the hospitals in Dawson City and Watson Lake. That includes full-time, part-time and on-call staff.

There are currently seven vacancies. Offers have gone out to three new nurses who could starts working in the territory but those deals haven’t been finalized yet, she said.

Finding nurses to work in community health centres can be challenging because they require specialized training, she said.

“Because they work without a physician, their skillset has to be that much higher than, say, a nurse (who) is working in a hospital. It’s a different set of skills that they need.”

In May, health minister Pauline Frost acknowledged the struggle that the territory has been having to recruit nurses.

“The challenges that we’re facing in Destruction Bay and Beaver Creek are no different from any of the other communities. I think, historically, we have had some major challenges with securing health care professionals in our communities,” she told the legislative assembly.

At the time Frost promised the necessary staff would be in place “for this coming tourist season.”

Starting this month, a second nurse will work in Beaver Creek and Destruction Bay sporadically, Living said.

“There’s not going to be two nurses there constantly, but we are able to get them in for periods of time over the next two to three months.”

She denied this move had anything to do with the union’s pressure.

“It begins because that’s when the staff was available.”

Living declined to say whether the department thinks nurses are being overworked but said she doesn’t believe the safety of staff or patients is at risk because of nurses’ workload.

Nurses work standard office hours and are on call after-hours and on the weekends. That doesn’t mean they will always be called out to an emergency.

“The calls on their services vary from community to community. While a nurse is working seven and a half hours a day the number of individuals that any nurse will see in any facility will vary from community to community,” she said.

If a nurse gets called out to an overnight emergency, there is always the option of rescheduling non-emergency patients the next day, she said. Nursing stations have administrative staff who help schedule appointments.

The union contract requires that community nurses get every third weekend off. Living said all requests for leave this summer have been met.

New nurses are required to go through six to eight weeks of training after they are hired, Living said. That means that even if a new nurse were hired today it’s unlikely he or she would start work until September.

The department currently has four nurses in training who should be out “soon,” she said.

There’s no word on whether those nurses could end up in Beaver Creek or Destruction Bay. Those decisions aren’t made until training is complete.

“One of the things we have to keep in mind is that we cannot force an individual to go into a community,” Living said.

Prior to the union agreement, Destruction Bay and Beaver Creek were the only communities in the territory that had only one nurse on staff. The rest of the communities technically have two positions though there’s no policy that requires all the positions be staffed at all times.

In 2015 Geick raised similar concerns that community nurses across the territory were too often working alone because the territory had too many vacancies.

Living says things have gotten better since then, though she couldn’t provide numbers to back up her claim.

“With the exception of Beaver Creek and Destruction Bay, nurses working alone is the rarity, it’s the oddity instead of the norm. This is significantly changed since 2015.”

After sending multiple emails, Geick said he had a short conversation over the phone with Frost a week or two ago. He said he would like to set up a meeting to talk about his concerns in more detail.

Frost was not available for comment.

Contact Ashley Joannou at ashleyj@yukon-news.com

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