B.C.’s auditor general is warning that the Northern Health Authority region is short 121 registered nurses, leading to unfilled shifts and longer patient wait times.
In a report released Thursday, Carol Bellringer said the health authority was unable to fill 15 per cent of its full-time registered nurse positions as of April 2017, as well as six full-time nurse practitioner positions.
Nurse practitioners can prescribe medication and order tests, and are often the main health professional for many remote B.C. communities.
“It’s a pretty big number, even though it doesn’t sound like a lot,” Bellringer told reporters. “It shouldn’t be left without attention from the [health] ministry and the health authority. It isn’t a new problem.”
Some areas, like Upper Skeena, Nechako, Smithers, Prince Rupert, Fort Nelson, Peace River North and Terrace, were short more than 20 per cent of their workforce.
Northern Health could only fill half its vacant shifts with its own part-time nurses, the report says. The other half of the shifts remained vacant or were filled by contracted nurses, usually at a higher wage.
She warned nurse shortages could lead to burnout, which increases the risks of mistakes, longer wait times and lower patient safety, as over-worked nurses do not always have time to check up on patients.
Quesnel Mayor Bob Simpson said his constituents haven’t complained to him specifically about waiting longer for medical treatment, but he has heard about a related problem.
“We have nursing graduates who want to remain here, but aren’t able to find positions,” Simpson said.
Quesnel is one of three northern B.C. communities where the College of New Caledonia, Northwest Community College and the University of Northern British Columbia collaborate to offer a nursing degree program. The other two communities are Terrace and Prince George.
David Williams, Northern Health vice-president of human resources, said this shortage is not unique to the north, and that the authority tries to highlight the benefits of working in the region.
He also said Bellringer’s information came a time when Northern Health had introduced a model in which nurses worked together with other staff like social workers and physio therapists.
The report said nurses felt unqualified to work on those teams because they might have to perform a general primary care nurse, and not in their specialized area.
All registered nurses are qualified to work as primary care nurses, Williams said, but the health authority was working with their staff to make sure they felt comfortable with their news roles.
A request for comment from the health ministry has not yet been returned.
Bellringer’s report will go to a non-partisan legislative committee for review.
She said the health authority has brought in better recruitment and retention practices, the report adds, it has failed to track the effects.
Some factors, like weather and isolation, were out of the agency’s control, the report says, but it could improve poor management practices as well as work with existing nurses to shift them into jobs they’d find more satisfying.