Yukon nursing: a crisis everywhere but in the halls of power

There’s a critical nursing shortage in the Yukon. But the biggest problem is sorting out the source of the shortage.

There’s a critical nursing shortage in the Yukon.

But the biggest problem is sorting out the source of the shortage.

The government pins the blame on a national shortage of nurses.

But doctors, nurses, opposition politicians suggest a crisis in management that the government could be doing more to fix.

Whatever the cause, the nursing shortage will only worsen if it’s not fixed.

If nurses are put under more stress, they are likely to leave. And the Yukon risks getting a bad reputation in the industry, which would cripple its efforts to get new nurses.

The question now is how far has the situation deteriorated?

The Copper Ridge


Last week, responding to criticism from the Yukon Medical Association about a critical lack of long-term-care beds, the government pledged to open 12 beds at Copper Ridge Place.

The dominoes started falling.

“My first response was, ‘Where are they getting the nurses?’” said Yukon Registered Nurses Association president Paula Bilton.

The new beds require five attending nurses, she said.

She worries relief nurses helping cover shifts at the hospital may be dispatched to Copper Ridge Place.

“What is Health and Social Services going to do? Are they going to be poaching that relief staff that’s already helping a stretched hospital?” asked Bilton.

“That’s really going to leave the hospital in a mess.”

Summer vacation slashed

On Thursday, shortly after the government’s announcement, the hospital slashed nurses’ summer vacations to two weeks, according to several sources.

Despite government assurances this isn’t a crisis, slashing vacation time “Proves the point — they are short staffed,” said Liberal leader Arthur Mitchell.

The Hospital Corporation makes its own staff decisions away from political meddling, said Health Minister Brad Cathers on Monday.

“If issues are brought to my attention by the board and the CEO, we deal with them,” he said. “But they deal with their operational matters and I have not had that information presented to me as a concern.

“If that (suspended vacations) is indeed correct, that is not something that has been raised as an issue of concern by the hospital administration.”

Of course, the vacations were cut by the hospital administration.

“Certainly we’re very concerned,” said Bilton, president of the nursing association that represents the Yukon’s 310 active nurses.

The issue came up at the association’s annual general meeting last weekend, and Bilton will take that message to a meeting with Cathers and Aeberhardt this week, she said.

Is there a nursing ‘crisis’?

Is the labour shortage fixable?

“I think what needs to be done is to separate the distinction between challenges, which there always are, and the type of ‘crisis’ that the opposition is trying to portray,” said Cathers following question period Monday.

In the legislature, both Mitchell and NDP health critic John Edzerza pressed Cathers on the nursing shortage, and referred to Yukon Medical Association president Dr. Rao Tadepalli, who last week described bed shortages at Whitehorse Hospital as a “crisis.”

“The reflections of both Arthur Mitchell and John Edzerza are verging on fear-mongering,” said Cathers. “Our staffing levels are good, (but) there are always challenges.”

Those challenges are indeed nationwide.

Canada will be short 58,000 nurses by 2011, said Canadian Nurses Association president Marlene Smadu from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia on Monday.

By 2016, that number could grow to 116,000, she said.

An aging population and cuts to nursing programs, which happened in the 1990s, are starting to have an impact, exacerbating the problem, said Smadu.

Yukon nurses were recently polled about their age and their expected retirement age.

In Canada, the average nurse is 45; in the Yukon, the average age is 48, said Bilton.

And 70 per cent of those said they’d retire within five years.

“That’s indeed troublesome for us,” said Bilton.

So is there a crisis?

 “Let’s put it this way: Mr. Cathers doesn’t have a nursing problem,” said Mitchell on Monday.

Cathers, Premier Dennis Fentie and the Hospital Corp. all seem more focused on damage control than with addressing the problems, he said.

When the issue flared last week in the legislature, the government “must have immediately contacted the board chair (Craig Tuton) and said, ‘You better speak to the CEO and how are we going to get something out that puts this fire out?’” said Mitchell.

On Thursday, Hospital Corp. CEO Michael Aeberhardt staged a news conference to refute many of Tadepalli’s allegations.

A Liberal researcher sent to that news conference was asked to leave, said Mitchell.

“That indicates that the press conference is not necessarily in the interests of informing the public, but controlling the issue,” he said. “Even Mr. Aeberhardt made some reference in his apologetic press conference to some nursing staff shortages, so I think everybody agrees on that.

“There is a nursing staff shortage, especially when it comes to specialty nurses in intensive care and the operating room.”

The government “should stop picking sides and do their job,” he said.

An anonymous source told the News the shortage could force the shutdown of the operating room.

Are we winning

the recruitment war?

Whenever there’s talk about nurse and doctor shortages, talk of recruitment can’t be far behind.

But hiring a nurse isn’t as simple as putting a job ad in a paper.

Nursing school graduates are like rock stars, and health centres around the world want them.

In Canada, some jurisdictions are working to improve their chances of snagging new graduates.

Ontario offers guaranteed full-time employment to every graduating nurse in the province, said Smadu.

The offer is seven-and-a-half months but will doubtlessly open doors for long-term jobs, she said.

In Saskatchewan, the government has provided undergraduate bursaries for students in nursing programs; in return, they must work in the province.

Manitoba and other provinces have examined the costs of relocating nurses and how they can be supported in a grant in exchange for returns of service, she said.

Support for professional development and education, the availability of mentors, the amount of work hours required and stress levels are all important factors, she said.

“One of the key issues is the quality of the workplace,” said Smadu.

The Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut have “added challenges” because of the isolation nurses face working north of 60, she said.

So what are we doing?

There are monthly advertisements for nursing positions in several magazines, as well as a continuing nursing education fund to help pay for nurses to upgrade their skills.

The fund sits at about $135,000 at the moment, according to Health officials.

There are also four nursing bursaries for students in nursing school, which provide up to $5,000 for up to four years.

Nine students are currently receiving money through the program, said Health officials.

The government also provides recruitment bonuses of $3,000 per year for nurses and $6,000 for community health practitioners.

But several sources have told the News about morale problems within Whitehorse General Hospital.

And word in the nursing community in Canada is that the Yukon is a bad place to work as a nurse, said Edzerza.

He should know: his daughter is a nurse and tried to get a full-time nursing job in the Yukon in 2005, only to be told there weren’t full-time positions.

She’s now a nurse in Dawson Creek, British Columbia.

And she has been offered a job in Hawaii that includes a house, he said.

“The fact is there were Yukon graduated nurses that were turned away. And now they’re saying they want to do a mentoring program to encourage those people to come back after another hospital gives them experience. What kind of crap is that?”

Edzerza’s daughter is aboriginal and would have potentially stayed for many years, he said.

“It does not make any sense for them to say they’re doing everything they can to recruit nurses. Number one: quit bullshitting. It doesn’t seem like there’s a genuine (recruitment) process in place here.”

Smadu, who keeps close tabs on nurse recruiting, has not heard anything specific about potential problems in the Yukon.

“But if there are any concerns that are being expressed, they must be addressed. Whether it’s real or whether it’s perception, that’s going to tarnish the reputation of any jurisdiction,” she said.

 “No employer can afford to have a reputation less than stellar. Word of mouth and the kind of information that gets spread about the quality of a workplace is absolutely critical.”

Recent news can’t help that image.

Health’s deputy minister John Greschner has resigned to become BC’s new deputy representative for children and youth.

 “It’s yet one more loss of a professional in the field,” said Mitchell. “We’re losing nurses, we’re losing doctors, and now we’re losing the DM.

“We have to put the dollars there, we have to make sure we’re out there so when people graduate, Yukon has to be high on their radar.”

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