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Overworked nurses quitting Lions Gate ER, says nurses' union rep

North Vancouver emergency department 'one of the most short-staffed' in VCH, say nurses
Overworked nurses at Lions Gate Hospital's emergency department are quitting their jobs, says their union. | Mike Wakefield, North Shore News

Nurses in critical care areas of Lions Gate Hospital are burning out from the stress of overwork during the pandemic and leaving to take jobs elsewhere, says the B.C. Nurses Union.

“There’s a mass exodus of nurses out of Lions Gate ER. They just cannot cope anymore,” said Danette Thomsen, vice-president of the nurses union. “They’re going other places to work.”

Thomsen said nurses have been hugely stressed by working short staffed for a lengthy period of time, and it’s impacting morale at the hospital.

“We know that [Lions Gate] emergency department is one of the most short-staffed units in the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority,” said Thomsen – with fewer nurses working than would be considered normal for a shift on a regular basis.

Thomsen said short staffing among nurses is particularly acute on some units at Lions Gate, but has been happening at hospitals throughout the province.

“Nurses are stretched, and there aren’t enough of them to go around. And it’s getting worse,” she said.

“ICU and ER – those are high stress areas of work,” said Thomsen. “They are seeing the brutality of this pandemic.”

“These are critical care patients that are hanging on by a thread and your workload is doubled as a nurse, living under that huge adrenaline rush for 12 hours at a time over and over and over. ... It's exhausting,” she said.

Thomsen said while a normal ratio of nurses to patients on a regular medical unit might be one nurse to four or five patients, “I have emails that speak of three nurses to 37 patients.”

Not having enough staff creates huge distress for nurses who have to decide “what needs to be done versus what doesn’t need to be done” for patients.

Thomsen made her comments after a recent survey among nurses conducted for the union indicated many nurses have reached the breaking point.

According to that survey, 35 per cent of nurses surveyed said the experience of the pandemic has led them to consider leaving the profession. Over half of the nurses (51 per cent) working in the ER and ICU said they plan to quit the profession.

Staff shortages are already an ongoing problem at Lions Gate, as well as at other hospitals throughout B.C.

It was recently revealed that hundreds, and possibly over 1,000, scheduled surgeries will be delayed at Lions Gate Hospital through to April because of continuing staff shortages.

Two operating rooms have been closed every day at Lions Gate since the third week in October, cutting normal capacity by between 20 and 25 per cent. That means between six and eight scheduled surgeries are being postponed every day, according to the Ministry of Health.

Thomsen said the government was already projecting a shortage of 23,000 nurses by 2029. “That’s pre-pandemic,” she said.

Thomsen said there need to be more seats in nursing schools to graduate more nurses.

B.C. also needs to do a better job of making it easier for nurses who come from other countries to become licensed in the province, she said. Currently, it can take five to seven years for a nurse from another country to become licensed in B.C., she said. “It’s easier to go to Ontario and become licensed.” Many nurses do that, said Thomsen. But when they have their licence, they also don’t come back.

Health administrators in Vancouver Coastal Health also need to sit down with nurses and ask what could make the situation in local hospitals better, said Thomsen, before the situation gets worse.

Nurses also need whistleblower protection, said Thomsen.

“I think that's how these problems get so big and so large, because they have the inability to speak to them in a timely manner. Often, it's not until we're at a full-blown crisis.”

In a statement, Vancouver Coastal Health, said the past 20 months of the pandemic have been "immeasurably taxing" for front-line health care staff. VCH "continues to explore and implement a wide range of measures to help address current staffing challenges and other demands on acute care delivery. This includes targeted recruitment strategies and the redesign of staffing models, where appropriate," the health authority said.

The health authority added it continues to be safe to access medical care at hospitals and clinics when needed.