We are starting 2023 in a health crisis. After years spent worrying about our seniors and those suffering from the backlog in surgeries, pediatric emergency rooms are now stretched to their breaking point — with heartbreaking results. Canadians know the problems we are facing with a dire shortage of nurses, but all they get from politicians is bickering and finger-pointing. It can seem hopeless.
Sometimes it feels hopeless, too. Right now, nurses across Canada are working double or triple shifts while watching infants and toddlers struggle to breathe. Tiny rib cages shudder for each desperate breath while they battle flu, COVID-19, and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. Parents, exhausted from waiting hours to see a doctor, have run out of patience. Exchanges become heated as desperation and worry mount. The last thing those parents or our nurses care about are scoring political points.
Canada’s nurses want Canadians to know we are offering solutions and are eager to collaborate with all levels of government. What we want is simple: for patients to finally receive the care they need, and for nurses to practice their profession under safe and sustainable working conditions. But we need governments to start listening.
Governments must do three things to fix the nursing shortage crisis: keep experienced nurses in their jobs, bring nurses back to the public sector, and recruit nurses where they are needed most. We need proven programs, backed by firm timelines and real accountability.
To stop nurses from quitting, going part-time or retiring early — and ensure safe patient care — nurses’ working conditions must be improved. Provinces can legislate to reduce workloads by implementing safe nurse-to-patient ratios and make targeted investments in retention initiatives. The federal government should also be making direct investments to support return and recruitment initiatives, including mental health programming. In some regions, health-care workers have already become the majority of counsellors’ clients since the pandemic. The mental health implications of nurses seeing more little children suffer through this winter surge of viruses is only making that worse.
Nurses are also recommending the federal government establish a collaborative health workforce council of provincial and territorial health ministries. This council would be mandated to improve local and regional health workforce planning and capacity building, so we do not repeat staffing fluctuations endlessly.
These solutions will help bring nurses and early retirees back to the public sector, reducing provinces’ reliance on expensive private agencies while still ensuring surge needs are met across the country. We also need to expand domestic training programs, and target recruitment to diversify the nursing workforce. To that end, the provinces should scale up student nurse programs to support them securing employment in attractive full-time jobs, and expand access to micro-credentials to support nurses wanting to advance in their careers.
By working collaboratively on a pan-Canadian human resources plan for health, we can ensure nurses have safe workplaces — and that patients have access to the care they need. All levels of government must step up, just like nurses have for so long. This is a big challenge, but together we can improve health care for nurses and patients alike.
Canada’s governments are struggling to work together to reach an agreement on health-care funding. It’s time to stop the blame game and take immediate action. Nurses have real solutions; our governments need to listen.