Newmarket hospital says it has filled hundreds of positions and is avoiding ER closures, but staffing shortages remain an issue
Nurses at Southlake Regional Health Centre — like their counterparts in hospitals across the province — are being pushed to the limit as a result of ongoing staffing shortages, according to Ontario Nurses’ Association Region 3 vice-president DJ Sanderson.
“The level of stress and frustration that you can hear in the voices of (nurses) when they’re just describing a regular day of work,” Sanderson said. “The number of phone calls I get routinely of nurses completely broken down and in tears, saying, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ They feel like the concerns they’re bringing forward to the employer are falling on deaf ears, and Southlake needs to do a lot more.”
Sanderson, who has worked as a Southlake nurse, said there had been some shifts at the Newmarket hospital short four or five registered nurses.
The health-care sector is under strain from the COVID-19 pandemic and staffing shortages associated with burnout. Some emergency rooms in Ontario hospitals have closed over weekends due to the pressure.
Like other Ontario hospitals, Southlake is trying to manage ongoing staffing challenges, particularly in emergency rooms. The hospital posted a message on social media July 22 asking for patience as it works to “overcome the immense challenges faced through Ontario’s health-care system.”
The hospital has not yet come close to having to close an emergency room as some smaller hospitals have done, executive vice-president of clinical services Barb Steed said. But the shortages are being felt, she said.
“We certainly have staffing challenges, probably across all of our clinical and non-clinical portfolios,” she said. “Staff are tired, and they’re burnt out coming out of all these waves of COVID that add to our challenges.”
The hospital has tried to address the staffing gap, she said. More than 340 positions have been filled in the last two months with a “robust recruitment strategy” that has included in-person career fairs, social media campaigns and advertising.
Still, Steed said there are vacancies, and recruitment will be an ongoing effort until more nursing graduates enter the sector.
In the meantime, Southlake has tried to incentivize existing staff to take on extra night and weekend shifts for additional pay, which Steed said would carry on until at least Labour Day given summer holidays. The hospital has also had staff appreciation events this summer, such as a throwback ’80s day July 21.
“It’s helping us maintain services, and patient safety is our No. 1 concern, as well as staff wellness,” Steed said, adding that incentives “have worked well enough that it’s allowing us to get through our weekends safely so far.”
But the nurses union is not happy with the conditions they are working under and Sanderson said the low numbers have led to unsafe shifts. It got to the point that they asked the Ministry of Labour to inspect the situation July 26, with a report forthcoming.
“Some of it is related to violence,” Sanderson said, adding that upset or violent patients are a significant issue. “But just the sheer number of working by yourself in certain areas, because there are so few staff around. Working in isolation, nurses felt the conditions they are expected to practise in were just unsafe.”
The hospital has faced charges multiple times over Occupational Health and Safety Act violations in recent years, pleading guilty to two of nine counts in 2020. Another set of five charges came forward in 2021, with three of them dropped and two remaining to be resolved.
Southlake has maintained that it goes above and beyond to ensure safety and is confident in its defence against the remaining charges laid in 2021.
Solving the staffing issues will take time, Steed said, as well as more nursing graduates. She said there is also a need for more long-term care beds, as well as a new hospital building that the aged Newmarket hospital is working toward.
Barriers also need to be removed for internationally trained nurses, Sanderson said.
“The red tape, for lack of a better term, some of these folks need to go through is mind-boggling.”
The public should be “more patient than usual” during this time and expect some delays, Steed said.
“We would ask for kindness and patience for the staff, who are working so hard to look after them,” she said. “We appreciate our staff, and I want the public to know how tired they are and how hard they’re working.”