Wake up call: community nursing is in crisis

Steve Geick Open letter to Health Minister Mike Nixon: As a nurse, I can't believe your response to issues raised by ourselves and the NDP concerning Yukon's community nursing branch. I'm amazed at your lack of understanding of the realities health-care

COMMENTARY

by Steve Geick

Open letter to Health Minister Mike Nixon:

As a nurse, I can’t believe your response to issues raised by ourselves and the NDP concerning Yukon’s community nursing branch. I’m amazed at your lack of understanding of the realities health-care professionals face in our rural communities, and I shake my head at your blase attitude toward the health and welfare of rural Yukoners.

As union president, I am now more worried than ever for the health of nurses in the communities who tell us they are struggling and suffering. Whether your recent comments were based on misinformation, naivete, arrogance or indifference you’ve misrepresented and manipulated the truth.

Let me take a few moments to point out where you’ve missed the mark.

Nurses in communities are leaving their jobs or choosing not to return to Yukon for new contracts. Your response that you’re “working with the YRNA on recruitment and retention” tells me you haven’t done your homework. Have you investigated why there is such a high rate of turnover?

Your numbers were wrong as well: two nurses have chosen to retire and another three have simply given up and quit; not your stated one retiree and one resignation. Sure, turnover happens, but the spike in resignations and retirements with more certain to come should have your alarm bells ringing.

Community nursing is in crisis. In my opinion, morale is the lowest its been since the service was devolved from the federal government.

Nurses worked alone in rural health centres for 182 days from March until the end of August. In one community, the health nurse worked alone for 52 days over the busy summer tourist season. Yukon is the only jurisdiction in Canada which allows a nurse (and a community) to be placed in that dangerous position. Working alone places nurses at greatly elevated risk of injury, violence and fatigue and increases the odds of error, putting patient safety at risk. No other first responders are expected to work alone; no firefighter, no RCMP, no-one.

You assert that Yukon nurses have never worked alone in a community for longer than five consecutive days; not true. That’s the result of flawed accounting of the true hours worked. The clock stops after five days; weekends aren’t counted – even when nurses work through the weekend – and stat holidays aren’t calculated. And though you may not be counting weekends, you’re certainly paying for them as overtime costs skyrocket.

Although you stated (incorrectly) that the Yukon government employs 40 community nurses, your staff corrected that number to 32. In fact, there are only 22.5 staffed nursing positions to serve the needs of rural Yukoners. Although there are four “float” positions to act as backup staff, those positions haven’t been filled for years. You tell us there are currently 11 vacant positions; that means the Yukon government needs to hire 50 per cent more nurses simply to meet its own required staffing levels. That’s not normal turnover; that’s a critical failure to manage operational needs.

Putting the numbers aside, there are problems in community nursing that need scrutiny. In my opinion, high turnover in such a critical area indicates serious systemic malfunction. Prolonged position vacancies, chronic recruitment and retention problems and the departure of committed long-term employees mean something is wrong. I suggest you take a look at how things are working at community nursing and get things fixed before something awful happens.

Our members are talking. They’re talking to each other and they are certainly coming to talk with us. There are real problems in community nursing that this letter cannot address. You need to show some leadership and make it possible for these exhausted and under-resourced professionals to continue to provide the high quality care they are trained to provide.

One more suggestion: If you genuinely care about your employees and the health of rural Yukoners, get out from behind your desk. Travel to each health centre – I’ll even drive you myself. Have open and honest conversations with the nurses. Allow them to speak freely without fear of reprisal or recrimination. I think you’ll be surprised at what you learn… unless of course you already know but are choosing not to act.

Steve Geick is president of the Yukon Employees’ Union.

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