Nurses walk through the UCSF Medical Center Parnassus campus in San Francisco, Calif. October 2, 2012. (Mike Koozmin/2012 S.F. Examiner)

Overworked and understaffed: More than 300 vacancies in Vancouver Island nursing

Tentative deal with province includes ‘working short premium’ to encourage hiring

A tentative deal between the provincial government and the BC Nurses’ Union (BCNU) attempts to fix a staffing shortage plaguing B.C. nurses for years.

The deal includes a ‘working short premium’ that forces employers to pay extra to nurses working during short-staffed shifts.

The premium is intended to incentivize employers to hire more staff, says BCNU president Christine Sorensen.

“We have been constantly pushing the employers to hire more nurses and that, obviously, is still not meeting the staffing needs of the patient population,” she said. “At this point we needed to create some other mechanism to drive appropriate staffing levels.”

Currently, Island Health has more nursing vacancies listed online than any other health authority in B.C.

Island Health is seeking 238 registered nurses (RNs) and 71 licensed practical nurses (LPNs) – that’s 309 vacancies in total.

Comparatively, Interior Health has 204 nursing positions posted, Vancouver Coastal Health has 237, and Northern Health, 204 – and those numbers don’t include postings for nurse practitioners.

Data from the Canadian Institute of Health Information (CIHI) shows that B.C.’s registered nursing work force grew by 3,290 nurses between 2007 and 2016, while B.C.’s population grew by 466,670 in the same time period.

The most recent data available, from 2016, shows only one registered nurse for every 159 B.C. residents.

RELATED: Tentative deal reached for 44,000 nurses across B.C.

Sorensen said the situation remains dire – both for nurses and their patients.

“Nurses are 100 per cent committed to providing safe patient care but it is difficult to do so in a system that is underfunded, understaffed and frequently is over capacity,” she said.

The inability to provide adequate care creates moral and emotional distress for nurses – causing some to leave the profession altogether.

“Nurses’ psychological health and safety is of great concern, as is their physical safety,” Sorensen said. “The fact that both of these are under stress is leading to more nurses either leaving nursing [or] going to work under extreme emotional distress. I hear stories from nurses crying before the start of their shift [and] during their shift and going home at the end of their shift emotionally exhausted.”

The shortage creates long wait times for patients and what Sorensen calls ‘hallway nursing.’ Plus, she says the frustrations of sick and exasperated patients are often directed at nurses, many already over-worked.

The lack of care can lead to some patients not seeking care at all, Sorensen added.

“People don’t actually seek health care because they’re concerned that they will either have long waits or they are not sick enough…that other people must be sicker than them.”

RELATED: Campbell River hospital ‘overcrowded,’ says patient placed in hallway

Sorensen said the tentative agreement – expected to be ratified Jan. 21 – is more complex than agreements made in the past.

The working short premium follows past deals that increased hiring quotas, but Sorensen said nurses don’t feel those promises were kept.

“Nurses are very, very frustrated with the lack of follow-through from the employer […] under previous contracts and that is being reflected at this time,” Sorensen said. “We believe this will be the best way to incentivize employers to make the best use of resources that we have.”

Roy Thorpe-Dorward, communications director for the Health Employers Association of B.C. (HEABC), which negotiates on behalf of the province, said the working short premium requires employers “to take all reasonable efforts to fill shifts” and the ultimate goal is to “minimize the number of times this premium would be paid.”

Employers will have one year post-ratification until the premium is put in place.

HEABC told Black Press that the tentative deal also includes a commitment to create a Strategic Nursing Staffing Committee at each health authority to focus specifically on nurse workforce planning in that region.

Sorensen hopes B.C. health employers will explore ways to optimize education, increase awareness and explore other methods to attract more nurses and that eventually, “every unit across the province is appropriately and fully staffed.”

RELATED: Northern health dealing with lack of 121 registered nurses

RELATED: In 2016, BC announces plan to hire 1,600 more nurses

Vancouver Island Health Authority and the BC Ministry of Health have not yet returned requests for comment.

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