Nursing shortage not sustainable, union says

The medical floor at East Kootenay Regional Hospital is chronically understaffed, according to the local chapter of the B.C. Nurses Union.

The medical floor at East Kootenay Regional Hospital is chronically understaffed, according to the local chapter of the B.C. Nurses Union.

Patt Shuttleworth, chair of the East Kootenay region for the union, said Cranbrook nurses report “the staffing levels and morale on the medical floor are at the point of crisis.”

On one shift last week, Shuttleworth said, the unit was short three staff, and worked five hours of the shift with only three nurses. Meanwhile, the unit was beyond capacity, with 34 patients when full capacity is 29.

“The response from the manager on call was, ‘The patients will have to go without care.’ I can’t begin to tell you how incredibly distressing this is for the staff on that floor,” said Shuttleworth.

The problem is not a lack of nurses applying for positions at the hospital, she went on.

“When you have new grads who want to work, who get turned away and told there is no job for them, but you don’t have enough staff to do the work, then you have a problem.”

The medical floor cares for patients who are ill but do not require surgery, Shuttleworth explained.

“It might be someone who had a heart attack and is not quite ready to go home. It might be someone who had some sort of a gastro illness,” she said, adding that there are sometimes paediatric patients and palliative patients.

Shuttleworth said that Interior Health, which manages the Cranbrook hospital, has deleted the float pool of nurses for that floor.

“Normally with a float pool, they have a regular rotation like all the other nurses. There would be probably five of them at least in a float pool, and that would cover off one nurse per shift every day of the week.

“This float pool also provided regular work for new grads so they could cement their learning. Now they are just hired as casual employees. Even though some of them are working every day, they are not offered regular positions.”

Many nurses who work 12-hour shifts are called upon to work overtime and extra shifts to make up for the shortage, according to the union.

“They get called in on their days off. So they will have come off nights in the morning, they are supposed to be off for four days, and they’ll get called later that afternoon to come for that night or the next morning,” said Shuttleworth. “So they are not getting the rest that they need.

“From my perspective, this is incredibly short-sighted. It can only cost more to hire nurses at overtime and working overtime, and it increases the likelihood they will get sick or injured, and eventually leave the floor. Some of them leave the profession altogether.”

Nurses are worried about the level of care they can provide under these conditions, according to Shuttleworth.

“(Having) too few nurses creates increased overtime and sick time while providing less care to patients, which in turn means they end up back at the doctor’s office or in emergency. It is not saving the system money and is most certainly not providing the care that patients expect and deserve when they are sick.”

An Interior Health spokesperson said that, while management knows there are challenges in health care in general, they are not aware of shifts being worked short-staffed.

“I think all of us across health care, not specific to Interior Health – we know that care staff of all descriptions are in short supply, and with the ageing demographic of the population, it is a concern,” said Erica Phillips, acute health services administrator for Interior Health.

But, she went on, “In Cranbrook, it’s not a specific concern in this department at this time.

“Actually, we don’t have any vacancies currently on our medical floor.”