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Hospital staffing burden ‘unprecedented’ could peak soon: Ontario Health chief

Written by Javed Iqbal




Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press



Published Friday, August 5, 2022 5:22 PM EDT





Last updated Friday, August 5, 2022 5:22 PM EDT

Hospitals in Ontario are experiencing staff shortages at “unprecedented” levels, says a director at the provincial agency that oversees them, but the situation could improve in the coming weeks as the seventh wave of COVID-19 subsides.

“It’s not really a new problem, but the persistence of it and the severity of it is unprecedented,” said Dr. Chris Simpson, executive vice-president at Ontario Health, about the staffing that has led to service reductions and temporary emergency room closures in recent weeks.

Ten hospitals have had to temporarily close emergency rooms since June due to nursing shortages, according to Ontario Health. The closures continue this weekend, with hospitals in Clinton and St. Mary’s plans to close emergency rooms for a period of time on Saturday.

The system has always struggled to staff remote areas, Simpson noted, but the problem has now expanded to medium and large community hospitals and some academic hospitals.

Like many health advocates and labor groups, Simpson noted that the staffing shortage is particularly acute among nurses, many of whom have left the field due to retirements and burnout after more than two years of a grueling pandemic workload.

COVID-19-related absenteeism has also significantly affected operations, Simpson said, with “a few thousand” workers currently out of work due to the virus.

Simpson said he is optimistic that staffing shortages could peak in the coming weeks as the current wave of COVID-19 subsides, allowing more people to get back to work and fewer patients with the virus requiring care.

“I’m pretty optimistic … that in September we should look better from a personnel standpoint than we do today,” he said.

However, there may be future challenges in the fall, including a possible eighth wave of infections, and Simpson said solutions to quickly bring in more workers are being discussed.

A top priority is removing barriers that keep internationally trained health professionals out of the workforce, he said.

Ontario’s health minister on Thursday gave oversight schools for nurses and doctors two weeks to develop plans to more quickly register internationally trained professionals.

Simpson also said it is difficult for hospitals to share nursing staff because they are employees of individual hospitals. He said a “provincial workforce” is something to consider that could mitigate future damage in similar tight staffing situations.

A Statistics Canada labor force report released Friday, which included data on nurses and the health care worker shortage, found that more than one in five nurses worked paid overtime in July, the highest level since comparable data became available in 1997. By comparison, about 10 per percent of all other employees worked overtime in July.

Unions representing hospital workers on Friday shared a list of steps they suggested the government should take to tackle the situation.

The measures include more safety and mental health for staff, more financial incentives to help with retention and hiring, and expanded post-secondary opportunities for health care jobs.

They also called again on the province to raise wages and scrap a wage cap law.

Premier Doug Ford indicated this week that there would be no more pay increases, pointing to a retention bonus announced earlier this year for nurses.

Union leaders said the issue of appropriate incentives should be hashed out with the government in meetings with the workers themselves, and said those discussions should take place as soon as possible.

“The fact is we have a lot of people able to retire and we can’t really afford them to leave,” said Michael Hurley, president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions. “We need to have this discussion.”

A spokesman for Health Minister Sylvia Jones said in an email that she already met with the unions recently.

Stephen Warner pointed to efforts the government has already made to hire more workers, speed up registrations for internationally trained staff and noted that mental health services are available to health workers.

“We know more work needs to be done and we continue to work with all partners, including Ontario Health and the 140 public hospital corporations, the regulatory colleges and health care unions to address any challenges on the ground,” he said.

Meanwhile, Simpson stressed that Ontarians should not stay away from emergency rooms out of concern about staffing situations.

“If you are sick, come and see us,” he said. “Don’t sacrifice your health.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on August 8, 2022.

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Javed Iqbal

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