Opinion: The crisis in health care staffing is no secret – so don’t try to hide the gruesome data

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Statistics Canada data show there are currently 91,900 vacancies in the health sector – the bulk of those are for nurses and PSWs.Alex Lupul/The Canadian Press

There is a sickness in Canada’s health care system called secrecy.

The latest glaring example is the determined effort by the Ontario government to keep its data on the province’s shortages of physicians, nurses and personal support workers from the public eye.

Back in 2022, Global News filed a freedom of information request for Ontario’s projections for its health worker shortages, which were included in briefing notes for Health Minister Sylvia Jones.

The government declined to voluntarily make public the nine-page document, entitled “Health Human Resources Overview.” Releasing it would have been the smart thing to do because no one would have blinked an eye – that there are severe staffing shortages in the health system is hardly news.

Instead, the Ministry of Health provided a redacted document containing virtually no numbers.

Global News appealed the decision to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner and, after a protracted dispute, an adjudicator ruled in favour of the government.

The best one can say about the decision is that it is lacking in logic.

The adjudicator, Alec Fadel, acknowledged that there is “compelling public interest” in releasing the figures (and should have stopped there). But Mr. Fadel went on to say that releasing the data would have a negative impact on the ability of the government to negotiate with doctors, nurses, personal support workers and staffing agencies.

In arguing for secrecy, the government cited section 18(1)(c) of Ontario’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, claiming that releasing the data would be “injurious to the financial interests of the government or the ability of the government to manage the economy.”

First of all, that is a dubious argument. There is ample evidence, from a variety of sources, that there are grave shortages of health workers.

Another branch of government, the Financial Accountability Office of Ontario, projected a shortage of 33,300 nurses and personal support workers by 2027-28.

Statistics Canada data show there are currently 91,900 vacancies in the health sector – the bulk of those are for nurses and PSWs.

A report from RBC found that Canada is currently short 16,800 doctors and, without changes in work conditions, that will rise to 43,900 by 2028.

Are unions going to use the numbers to ask for better staffing levels, work conditions, pay and benefits? Of course they are. That’s called collective bargaining.

Are staffing agencies going to use the information to try and extract more money out of the Ontario government? Indeed. But the law of supply and demand means they have done okay without the data, racking up contracts exceeding $600-million last year, up from $368-million the year prior.

Are either of those parties going to have more bargaining power if precise projections are made public? Doubtful.

What is actually injurious to the economy is the shortage of health workers itself, not the data demonstrating the obvious.

And, even if the public release of the numbers were to cause “harm” – the definition of which, in this case, seems to be “pay workers more” – does that justify secrecy? Of course not.

The provincial government is behaving like the Ministry of Health numbers are classified information. But the notion that any negative data collected or compiled by a government can be suppressed because it could potentially cause economic harm is preposterous.

What information does that leave in the public domain – puppies and rainbows?

A health system without adequate staffing is no health system at all. Canadians are living this reality every day. The public – in Ontario, and elsewhere – deserves to know how bad the situation is, and how much worse it could get.

The provincial government, for its part, has an obligation to explain how its $81-billion-a-year health system got into this pickle, and what they’re going to do to fix it.

We deserve insight into government thinking – or lack thereof.

The only thing releasing the current numbers on the shortages of health workers and the projections of how bad these figures could get in the next five to 10 years will do is demonstrate the breadth of the government’s incompetence.

It is not the job of the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner to protect the government from embarrassing itself. Its role is to interpret privacy laws in a manner that benefits the public, not corporations and government agencies.

Transparency is a pillar of democracy. In the health sector, and elsewhere, the public has the right to know the truth, even when the truth hurts.


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