The Yukon government needs to nurse community health centres back to health

If current incentives aren’t getting it done, the government needs to offer more

Community nursing in the Yukon has been in a state of perpetual crisis for years with chronic staffing shortages plaguing various communities in the territory.

Nurses are reportedly being left, often all by themselves, in some communities to work long hours at a time. And then when the day is done, they are left with no choice but to be on call around the clock. Job vacancies are remaining open for extended periods without being filled.

The problem compounds itself because the nurses we are able to lure to small communities are overworked, making them more likely to burn out and, eventually, leave their jobs.

The government, so it claims, is powerless to do much about it. There is truth to this. This isn’t, after all, a Stalinist dictatorship and you can’t just make nurses move to small, remote, northern communities if they don’t want to, no matter how important it may be to have fully-staffed community health centres.

And while small town living suits some people just fine, it isn’t a lifestyle that is going to appeal to everyone. Just as some people like living in small towns, others just like living in cities. This is part of the reason why more and more Canadians reside in them.

Drawing educated professionals out of the cities and into smaller centres and rural areas is a particular challenge, and not one unique to nursing. The reality is that after years of living in larger centres, attending university with all the services and entertainment available, it takes a profound re-adjustment to imagine living in a community of several hundred people with a couple of restaurants (if that) and a small grocery store with a limited selection of items. This isolation is particularly acute in the Yukon since the nearest major centre, Whitehorse, is itself far from the rest of the country.

Having spent some time at Canadian universities, I can only imagine the challenges Yukon recruiters face in getting students to consider our territory’s smaller communities as an option after graduation. To many Canadians in the south, Yukoners live in some intimidating faraway land that is so removed from everything they know.

The fact that the people we need — nurses — are in high demand with plentiful options once they have their degrees makes the challenge particularly daunting. It is one thing to staff our smaller communities with teachers because there is such a large supply of graduates who just want a job. Nurses, on the other hand, don’t have that problem.

But we need nurses in these communities. So what can we do about it?

Yukon Employees Union president Steve Geick had some recruiting tips for the Yukon government. He suggested that they have people in authority actually available at job fairs who can hire nurses right then and there. If you expect nursing students to deal with the cumbersome application process common to most Yukon Government jobs, many will not bother.

Geick also suggested that the government focus on schools in smaller centres, working from the reasonable assumption that moving to a remote Yukon community seems less foreign to someone from a mid-sized Canadian city than to someone from the metropolises.

However, labour markets function on well-understood and predictable principles of supply and demand. If you can’t hire someone for a job you have to do what it takes to make the job worth their while. If you aren’t recruiting enough people it means one of two things: either you’re either not paying enough or the supply of potential employees is so critically low that they just aren’t available to be hired.

The government has made efforts to make the compensation more competitive and has continually enhanced the retention bonuses paid to nurses willing to go work in the communities. The previous government implemented a retention bonus program that started with a $4,000 paid after two years of service. The employee would receive increasing annual bonuses that would max out at $8,000 paid at the end of the sixth year and every year thereafter.

But it obviously isn’t enough. While the government may not want to hear this during a time when budget cuts needed to stave off future deficits, it may have to offer even larger bonuses.

Perhaps we should actually find a way to train homegrown nurses who would be more inclined to stay in the territory. Forgivable student loans for Yukon students who attend university and return to the territory to work in our smaller communities might go some distance but it is (at best) a partial fix.

But since the problem of understaffing of nurses in Yukon communities is probably one that will be endemic for the reasonably foreseeable future with no easy answers, thinking long term is something we can afford to do. When the job is a critical one like providing health care in Yukon communities and we’re burning out the nurses we have, saying we can’t afford to attract nurses isn’t good enough.

Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.

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