“The ER is full, the ICU is full, the wards are full, the hallways are full! What is the plan?.. I am telling everyone, you need to be concerned about the state of health care.”
That was one of the cries to Northern Health and Health Minister Adrian Dix heard outside of the University Hospital of Northern BC (UHNBC) in Prince George this morning (Thursday).
About 60 nurses, students, hospital workers, union members, and other supporters gathered on the corner of 15th Avenue outside of the hospital, protesting and raising awareness of the healthcare “crisis” that is unfolding in Northern Health.
The nurses made two primary issues very clear: they are dangerously short-staffed, which is made worse by the fact the hospital is dangerously overcrowded.
“I don’t think people understand until you are inside the doors, how dire the situation is,” Danette Thomsen, the North East Regional Council Member of the BC Nurses’ Union told Vista Radio after the rally.
“When you say overcapacity, it’s a word. When you walk down the hallways and see patients on stretchers lining the hallways, in shower and tub rooms, these are unsafe spaces,” she said. “There is nothing in a nurses bones that thinks that’s ok.”
While addressing the crowd, Thomsen did not need to look far for an example, saying just yesterday (Wednesday) the 17 bed Emergency Room was caring for 18 patients on top of their ER workload. One of the 18 was an Intensive Care Unit critical care patient.
She also said some people need to wait upwards of a year to get long-term care at the hospital, something that is “not only unacceptable, it is unthinkable. Our entire region is in crisis.”
The issue of overcrowding is only amplified by the severe shortage of nurses – the greatest shortage of nurses of any health authority in the province, according to Adriane Gear, the Vice President of the BC Nurses Union.
“[Morale] is so low,” Thomsen continued. “They continue to go to work for each other… they are calling each other in, saying ‘if anyone can come into work, there is one nurse on for the whole unit.’ Nurses are tired. They are tired of fighting and nothing being done.”
“Compared to any other health authority, the nursing shortage is greater,” Gear told Vista Radio. “That was pointed out in an audit in 2018 – Northern Health has less nurses than anywhere else per capita. That hasn’t changed. The situation is graver here.”
The nursing shortage is not just an issue in Prince George, in fact it is even worse in some smaller communities in the region.
Hospitals in Chetwynd, Mackenzie, Dawson Creek, Fort St. James, and others have recently been going on diversion – where they are forced to redirect new and emergency patients to other hospitals.
These diversions disproportionally impact residents in Northern BC.
Gear said if someone in the Lower Mainland is unable to get into Vancouver General Hospital for any reason, chances are they can go across the bridge to Surrey or Langley.
“Here, it is not just a matter of waiting hours and hours for care, your emergency services are closed or on diversion. You are traveling a long ways to get care that you need,” she said. “People in the north – everyone – deserves quality healthcare.”
“Chetwynd sends their patients mainly to Dawson Creek, but that hospital is in crisis,” Thomsen explained. “Their ER sometimes doesn’t have a doctor, or the doctor is virtual.”
The biggest threat to completely crippling the healthcare system in Prince George and Northern BC could be wildfire season – which Thomsen said she is losing sleep over.
Fort St. John was under an evacuation alert earlier this month, if they were required to evacuate, Thomsen asked how “an over-capacity hospital that is filled in every nook and cranny with patients can expand anymore? Honestly. We will all do what we can do, but I fear people are going to die. I really, really do. You can’t have that many patients in your care and not miss something as a nurse either.”
In dire need of more nurses and more space, the rally called on Health Minister Adrian Dix to travel to Prince George, and for the province to uphold their promise of enforcing nurse to patient ratios.
These ratios include one-to-one for critical care patients, one nurse for every two mental health patients, one-to-three for specialized care patients, and four-to-one for palliative care patients, something Jim Gould, the interim CEO of the BC Nurse’s Union, was very excited about when it was announced.
“That is a promise that we now need to make sure actually will take place,” Gear said.
There are over 5000 nursing vacancies in BC, then more will need to be hired to meet these ratio targets.
“It is a goal we all want, I believe government is committed to that, but government needs to roll up their sleeves and make it happen,” she said.
“Visiting this hospital today and yesterday, I can’t believe how many nurses have left the ER. They have either quit nursing, or they have gone casual, or they have taken positions elsewhere. They feel guilty, they feel so sad about that, but they need to do what’s best for themselves and their families.”
“Enough is enough. We are looking for action, we are looking for the minister of health to come up, let’s look at what is happening inside this ER and how many patients they are treating, and what the staffing compliment should be,” Thomsen said while addressing the crowd, adding
“This ER has been struggling not just for months, but for years. We keep raising the issues, yet nothing has changed.”
Prince George-Valemount MLA Shirley Bond was present at the rally, she spoke to the crowd last, and echoed the invitation to Health Minister Dix to come to the north.
“It is one thing to say you understand a system, it is completely different to sit down and talk to these nurses that serve northern BC… I would urge the health minister to spend a day here,” Bond said.
Afterwards, she told Vista Radio “nurses shouldn’t have to be standing on a street corner holding up a sign” to get help and attention from the government.
Bond said the nursing ratios are “a step in the right direction,” but she is not free of concern.
“Let’s face it, we have 5000 nursing vacancies today. Putting a ratio in place, we need even more nurses. It is very important, it is an important step, but what is more important is how we deliver those ratios in northern BC,” she said.
“I want to express my heartfelt gratitude to nurses in UHNBC caring for people. We need to make it possible for them to do that,” Bond said, in closing.