YTG part of the nursing shortage problem

While the number of nurses employed in the territory is on the rise, the number of full-time nurses is dropping.

While the number of nurses employed in the territory is on the rise, the number of full-time nurses is dropping.

It doesn’t make much sense, said Yukon Registered Nurses Association registrar Cathy Bradbury.

“We see a regular flow of young nurses through the office who are expressing disappointment that they’ve only been offered casual,” she said.

“Or they take casual, but they’re still on causal eight months later — so they have chosen to leave because they’re being wooed for full-time employment elsewhere.

“For years we’ve been saying that’s a concern.”

In 2005-06, the number of regulated nurses employed in the territory rose 7.3 per cent, according to a Canadian Institute for Health Information study released Tuesday.

But at the same time, the number of full-time regulated nurses dropped by 2.1 per cent, said the 141-page study.

“The main concern is that we haven’t really increased our full-time employment,” said Bradbury.

But casual nursing positions in the territory continue to be well above the national average, she said.

“We certainly remain alarmed about it,” added Bradbury.

“We are trying to get the message out that we’re losing nurses because employers and the Yukon are not making a commitment to them.”

It’s a problem in all workplaces.

But the Whitehorse General Hospital and the government are the biggest culprits, she said.

“The hospital and government are certainly our main employers.”

It’s often the young, new nurses who are only offered causal, said Bradbury.

The regulated nursing workforce study found the average age of nurses in Canada, in 2006, was 44.8 years.

In 2005, the average age was 44.7 years.

“We have an aging workforce and we’re gradually creeping up,” said Bradbury.

“More than half of our nurses are above the age of 45.

“So if we cannot retain young nurses, and all that we’re offering is causal here, then we will not be able to replace the retiring nurses.”

The Northwest Territories had even more short-term, fill-in nursing positions than the Yukon, said Bradbury.

“It was a longer-standing and more severe problem.

“So, the NWT really made an effort to address that, and it seems they’ve made some progress.”

In 2005-06, the number of regulated nurses employed in the NWT increased by 6.3 per cent. That territory’s full-time regulated nurse population also increased, by 3.1 per cent, according to the workplace study.

The staffing issue in the Yukon “may be helped somewhat by the mentorship program that Health and Social Services is getting up and running,” said Bradbury.

But this program will only help a couple of nurses get more of a commitment, she said.

Over the past year, the Yukon’s nursing shortage raised “its ugly head” at various workplaces, said Bradbury.

“In the spring it was the hospital that was seeing evidence of the shortage we’ve long predicted. And now the jail is the place we’re hearing it from.

“The jail is really typical of what we often say, if we lose two nurses that may seem like nothing — but two nurses in our very small population, especially if they’re from one workplace, can have a tremendous impact.”

Since the end of September, the Whitehorse Correctional Centre has had two auxiliary nurses filling in.

The jail is supposed to have two full-time and two casual nurses on staff, said supervisor Phil Perrin.

There should be a nurse on duty weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and the two auxiliaries would work four-hour shifts on the weekends, said Justice spokesperson Chris Beacom.

With no full-time nurses, days go by before sick inmates get appointments.

“They are supposed to do a medical intake when we’re admitted,” said inmate Veronica Germaine on Monday.

“But they didn’t do one on me.”

Germaine was sick when she arrived at the jail.

“I could have walking pneumonia,” she said, coughing into the phone, during a conversation on Friday.

Sharing a dorm with six other female inmates worried her.

“Two of them already have my flu,” she said.

Germaine had been trying to see a nurse since October 15th, she said.

“I put in an application and told them it was unacceptable,” said Germaine.

She received a written response — “We have nurse shortage problems, as you may have read in The News. When a nurse is available, she will see you.”

Germaine finally saw a nurse on Saturday, she said Monday.

“What is the government doing about it?” she said.

“Policymakers need to try and retain nurses, and the whole issue of full-time versus part-time is all part of that,” said Geoff Ballinger, manager of health and human resources for the Institute for Health Information.

It’s up to the hospital corporation to decide how many full-time and part-time staff it needs, said Health Minister Brad Cathers during Tuesday’s community tour in Whitehorse.

“Ministers are not involved in personnel decisions,” he said.

“We don’t decide which level of position gets hired, whether it’s casual, what the hours are, etc.”

The government is opening a 12-bed wing at Copper Ridge Place on Nov 15th, said Cathers.

The main nursing problems are not in government, he added.

“When I heard comments, they were directed primarily to concerns about the hospital corporation.”

Cathers has met with the hospital’s new CEO.

“We want to continue the partnership and work to address the existing pressures in health care,” he said.

“We have to figure out how to do this better, and address the needs and interest of staff to improve retention and the effectiveness of the operation.”

It’s a challenge to encourage nurses to go where the need is greater, said Ballinger from Ottawa.

“Often that need is in remote parts of the country — so it’s trying to find the right mix of salary, work environment and so on, that’s going to appeal to nurses most to make the leap to some of these remote areas.

“It makes the roles of a health planner a very complex one, in trying to understand what that right mix of enticements is going to be.”

There’s no magic solution, said Ballinger.

But some provinces are ahead of others.

In Ontario, nurses joining the workforce can choose whether they want full or part-time work.

It’s a flexible policy that makes it more appealing for nurses to work in that province, he said.

Full-time positions definitely cost the government more, said Ballinger, citing benefits.

“It is expensive. But it has to be viewed in terms of what is the cost of the alternative as well.”

The high rate of part-time work is a major factor in the current nursing shortage, according to a 2007 study by the Canadian Nursing Advisory Committee.

Compared with the general female labour force, the portion of female nurses over the age of 55 is considerably higher — 21 per cent compared to 13 per cent.

“Nurses generally graduate into their profession in their mid-to-late 20s and put in 30 years, so those nurses who are now 55-plus are at a point in their career where they are eligible for retirement,” said Ballinger.

“And if they all decide to retire at the same time we could find ourselves in some difficulty in trying to provide adequate access to health care.”