A dire shortage of nurses is being felt nationwide. The crisis in Alberta began years ago but has been made worse by the global pandemic and our governments’ responses to it. While it feels like no one has been listening, front-line nurses want Albertans to know we have been offering solutions and are eager to collaborate with all levels of government to fix this crisis.
The Alberta government is focused on reorganizing Alberta Health Services, privatizing public health care services, and planning unneeded “health spending accounts” to pave the way to user fees and co-pays. So far, Ottawa and the provinces have been unable to reach an agreement on national health care funding because the provinces demand there be no requirements or accountability attached to federal funds.
In the meantime, dozens of hospitals and health centres throughout Alberta have faced temporary closures because of continuing capacity issues, staffing shortages, and high patient volumes. The Red Deer Regional Hospital has cancelled surgeries and diverted patients to overstressed facilities across Central Alberta and even to hospitals in Calgary and Edmonton. This has an impact on all health care sites in Central Alberta and puts incredible stress on home care services in the region as well.
Nurses deserve safe workplaces and patients deserve access to the care they need. All levels of government must step up and work together. Nurses want Albertans to know that what we want is simple: We want patients to receive the care they need, and for nurses to practice their profession under safe and sustainable working conditions. To do that, we need our governments to start listening to us.
Governments must do three things to fix the nursing shortage crisis: keep experienced nurses in their jobs, attract nurses back to the workforce, and recruit nurses where they are needed most. We need proven programs, backed by firm timelines and real accountability.
Instead, we have nurses who are being bombarded with text messages and phone calls from their staffing departments asking them to fill shifts. Nurses are constantly working on teams that are short three or more nurses and it is impossible to cover that workload. As a result, patients who need care simply are not getting it.
The Government of Alberta could reduce workloads by implementing safe nurse-to-patient ratios and making further targeted investments in retention initiatives. The federal government should also make direct investments to support nurses returning to work and recruitment initiatives. But Ottawa and the provinces must work together to improve local and regional health workforce planning and capacity building.
We need these solutions to help bring nurses and early-retirees back to the public sector, to reduce Alberta’s reliance on expensive private agencies, and ensure surge needs are still met across the country. We also need to expand domestic nursing education programs and target recruitment to diversify the nursing workforce. Alberta should scale up student nurse programs to support new nursing graduates in securing employment in attractive full-time jobs.
A failure to implement these solutions will contribute to further declines in Alberta’s nursing workforce, and even more difficult working conditions in our hospitals and facilities. Albertans deserve better from their healthcare system. Alberta’s nurses have real solutions. Our governments need to listen to them.
Heather Smith is President of United Nurses of Alberta, which represents more than 30,000 Registered Nurses, Registered Psychiatric Nurses and allied health care professionals; Linda Silas is President of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions.