Nursing our Hospitals Back to Health
The emergency unit of the Gatineau hospital is still partially closed, on top of having had several days of complete closures in late June. The cause has been a lack of nurses. The Quebec Minister of Health, Christian Dubé, has said that we should expect further reductions in critical health care services throughout the Outaouais over the coming months as the nursing shortage worsens. The staffing shortage also leads to forced overtime for those available to work, which in turn increases burnout - a vicious cycle.
A shortage of nurses is a problem throughout Quebec, but is especially critical in the western parts of the province. The proximity of the Outaouais to Ontario has long meant that health professionals choose to work on the other side of the river, where the pay is often substantially higher. Currently the average salary for a nurse in Ontario is anywhere from ten to twenty percent higher than in Quebec, in addition to signing bonuses regularly awarded by Ontarian health facilities.
To increase the number of nurses in the Outaouais, the obvious solution is therefore to raise their pay. The Quebec Minister of Family, Mathieu Lacombe, has spoken of instituting signing bonuses for nurses by the end of the CAQ’s current mandate. This will certainly help in the short term, but in order to keep nurses for years to come salaries will also need to be addressed. Compared to the tremendous financial costs of the pandemic, raising nurses’ salaries would be relatively inconsequential to the budget, giving a substantial benefit for a relatively small cost.
Still, training new nurses will take time, as nursing programs at universities take at least four years to complete. In the meantime, a short-term solution is quite attainable. In 2018 the Quebec Order of Nurses (OIIQ) said that on average only 53% of a nurse’s time was spent providing care requiring their expertise. Those working in long-term care homes spent 18% of their time on administrative tasks. Nurses in general often find themselves responsible for ordering material, checking stock, answering the phone, and taking care of other organizational chores. Bringing in more assistants to take care of such work is possible in relatively short order. This would free nurses to spend more time providing direct care to patients and performing tasks requiring their expertise, thereby alleviating staffing pressure at many facilities and the resulting cuts to services. Everyone in the system is pushing for these improvements, so there won’t be resistance if the provincial government chooses to move in this direction.
The CAQ campaigned in the last election on building a new hospital in the Outaouais region to facilitate access to care. We’ve since seen that the main problem doesn’t lie with infrastructure at all. Although these issues are long standing, the current provincial government is three years into its mandate. Given the impending pressures on our health care system from an aging population in addition to those caused by the pandemic, the time for the provincial government to act on this is now.