Nunavummiut can expect to feel the effects of a worldwide shortage of healthcare professionals this summer, when as many as 12 of Nunavut’s 25 communities will see a reduction in services that, in some cases, may amount to a complete closure of the local health clinic for a multiple-week period from June until September.
The service reductions come at a time when Nunavut, according to the territorial health authorities, is having a hard time retaining its healthcare workers, while also having to compete with other Canadian jurisdictions to attract new healthcare staff. That has the territory already facing a shortage of healthcare workers that has left half of its nursing positions unfilled. The situation, though, is especially dire during the summer, when health officials must find temporary workers to cover for staff taking time off.
With the country experiencing a shortage of these types of workers, the territory says service reductions can be expected during the entire summer for the second year running. “I understand the importance of health centres,” John Main, the health minister, said during the 13 June session of the Legislative Assembly. “I really regret that this has to happen. It’s the lack of nurses.”
Last year two centres closed completely during the summer and eight provided only reduced levels of service. Although more stand to be affected this year, the final number centres that will be affected this year and their locations — as well as what the reductions will entail — will not be known until the health department finalises a contingency plan that it hopes will allow some of the centres on its list to continue to provide some level of care. “We do have additional resources to put towards those communities,” Mr Main said. “We have plans in place to continue trying to meet the needs, even during a complete closure.”
As with last year, one element of the contingency plan will be to station two paramedics in communities who can respond to emergencies and provide urgent health services. Other possibilities that could allow the territory to avoid or limit full closures during the entire period include temporarily relocating staff, virtual support provided by health professionals in other jurisdictions and occasional clinics staffed by fly-in doctors and nurses. The territory is also “aggressively” recruiting temporary nurses by doing things like offering to pay the travel costs for companions of nurses who chose to work in a community during the summer.
Such programmes have worked in the past, but avoiding closures next year will require filling vacant positions. In most cases, pay, according to Mr Main, is not the reason why nurses leave the territory after their contracts expire. “The nurses have been going through too hard of a time. The communities have grown considerably, and, as the Department of Health, we have to look into the future, to a longer term to try to get a real handle on the workload that our staff are facing in some of these communities.”
That, he reckoned, would mean bringing on additional staff to try to spread the workload in order to prevent burn-out and improve retention. “That is, I believe, the root of what we’re dealing with, along with a worldwide shortage of health professionals.” Ironically, that was the same answer Mr Main himself received in 2018 when he, while serving as a rank-and-file member of the Legislative Assembly, asked his predecessor how the health department would address its “chronic” staffing problems. It is a condition Nunavummiut will hope that his successor does not inherit.
Kevin McGwin, PolarJournal
Featured image: Dr Michael Wenger
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