Canadian forces nurse bails out short-staffed operating room

Military pitches in at Qikiqtani hospital


The nursing shortage is so bad at the Qikiqtani Regional Hospital in Iqaluit that the military has been called in.

One Canadian Forces nurse, who formerly worked at a civilian hospital in Halifax, will help staff the hospital's operating room Feb 18 to 27.

Calling the military was a last resort, after all eight nursing agencies that the Government of Nunavut deals with were unable to offer a nurse qualified to work in an operating room.

Two weeks ago, it looked as if the operating room would close.

But since then the situation has improved, and several other nurses qualified to work the operating room have been found through agencies, said Dr. Steve Gray, the hospital's acting director.

Still, "it's a stressful time," Gray said. "We don't have sufficient staffing."

Several years ago the military struck a deal with Nunavut to provide medical staff if needed, Gray said. It's only been used once before, last year, when a military doctor worked at the hospital for a short period.

So, when it became clear that late February would be a "crunch time," with no nurses available, Gray took the military up on the offer.

Iqaluit's isolated location is usually listed as a big reason why it's so difficult to recruit nurses.

But Gray said the military likes the idea of having its personnel working in Nunavut, where they may encounter problems, such as scheduling medevac flights, more familiar to battlefield medical posts than southern hospitals.

There's a country-wide nursing shortage, but Nunavut faces some unique challenges. Chief among them is how the government offers better pay and benefits to contract nurses, hired from recruitment agencies to work short stints, compared to its own nursing staff.

Agency nurses are better paid than indeterminate workers. They're also given free housing, while staff nurses, like other government workers, face rising rents.

This bothers Cheryl Young, head of the Nunavut nurses' union, to no end. She says it creates many incentives for Nunavut nurses to quit their government jobs and sign up with an agency, or to simply take a better-paying job elsewhere in the country.

The Nunavut government says it's prepared to offer better pay and benefits to its staff nurses, but there's no sign of this happening soon. Collective agreement talks recently ground to a halt between the government and the Nunavut Employees Union, which counts the nurses as members.

Both parties are seeking a mediator, while the union is preparing for a strike vote.

Meanwhile, the emergency room of the hospital is now more short-staffed, Young says, now that two of its staff nurses have been transferred to the operating room. "Basically, they're robbing Peter to pay Paul," she said.

Gray replies that, while there are more agency nurses working in the emergency room, the hospital remains "adequately" staffed to serve the public.

Since the new wing of the hospital opened this autumn, only one of the two operating rooms is in use. For now, Gray says, one operating room is enough to keep up with demand.

And, until the hospital is better staffed, one hallway full of rooms designed to hold patients has been converted into storage space for equipment and supplies.

Management and union representatives tell different tales about why the operating room nurses left. Gray says they were simply ready to leave the North. Young says they were unhappy with pay and benefits.

In any case, Alex Campbell, deputy minister of health, stresses, "We're not in crisis. We're not panicking."

Several months ago Young predicted that nurses would resign en masse. That hasn't happened. But Young says nurses will continue to leave, "in dribs and drabs," until they're treated better.

She knows of at least one more nurse who plans to quit soon. It's her. She says she plans to leave Iqaluit in June for Ottawa, "where they make more money."

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