AMHERST – A group of nurses is speaking out about the working conditions at Cumberland County’s largest hospital.
In a letter, signed by more than 30 nurses, CCAs and LPNs, the group said the nursing staff has been asking management to improve working conditions at the Cumberland Regional Health Care Centre for at least two years.
“Nothing has changed,” the letter, dated March 14, says. “We are constantly understaffed and are working in unsafe conditions. We are concerned for our own health and wellness as nurses and we are also concerned for the safety and health of our patients.”
The group said the medical unit at the regional hospital is not being staffed at a safe level, leaving patient care compromised.
Janet Hazelton, president of the Nova Scotia Nurses Union, said it’s a familiar story at many hospitals across the province, but the situation is most acute at Cumberalnd County’s regional hospital. She said nursing concerns are a regular subject at labour-management meetings and nurses are completing numerous critical capacity reports.
Hazelton said nursing staff first raised the issue a couple of years ago and were told there was no money to hire additional staff. The message changed to one in which the health authority said it’s working on a plan. However, she added, there has been nothing new on what that plan is and when it will be implemented.
“We’ve had nothing but empty promises,” she said. “Nurses are growing increasingly frustrated and they’re reaching their breaking point because it doesn't appear as though any relief is coming.”
Hazelton said the key issue is the workloads faced by nursing staff. She said the nurse to patient ratio is growing and because of the aging on Nova Scotia’s population there are more people turning to hospitals for help and those that are presenting at ERs are more acutely ill.
At the same time, she said, there’s a nursing crisis underway in the province brought about by a growing number of nursing vacancies and a sicker population.
“They’re struggling to keep up with the workload,” she said. “It’s something that’s brought up every single meeting. This is something that’s happening at a lot of hospitals as the acuity level increases. The old model of health care is not working any longer.”
Cumberland North PC MLA Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin brought the issue up in the Nova Scotia legislature last week, asking Health and Wellness Minister Randy Delorey when the medical unit at Cumberland Regional would be staffed safely.
“Eighteen months ago, a manager in the medical unit reported unsafe conditions – no action was taken; nothing changed. Ten months ago, I met with the facility manager on behalf of the nurses – no action was taken; nothing changed. Five months ago, I met with the zone medical and nursing leaders on behalf of the nurses – no action was taken; nothing changed,” Smith-McCrossin said in the legislature.
She said registered nurses and LPNs cannot cope with the current patient-to-nurse ratio and many have had to go on sick leave to get away from the “overwhelming stress.” The MLA and PC health critic said there is also a hiring freeze on CCAs, who are quitting because of the workload.
The minister said identification of staff requirements within hospitals is managed by the Nova Scotia Health Authority and is something that can vary, based on the needs of the individuals within a particular unit or zone.
Cheryl Nortcott, the NSHA’s director of operations for the northern zone, said the health authority is committed to providing the best patient care experiences and outcomes possible. She said the NSHA will be reaching out to staff for further conversations.
“Patient and staff safety is of utmost concern,” Northcott said in an email. “We understand that the nursing staff has concerns and we take those seriously.”
Northcott said in other parts of the province there has been a change in patient population and the care needs on medical units. There are fewer patients than in the past waiting for long-term care placement and the patients occupying the beds have more acute care needs.
“We have brought in resources to assess staffing numbers and ratios and we are actively working toward changing the model of care on this unit. We are exploring a number of strategies based on evidence around best practice.”
In the interim, she said, an access and flow coordinator has been introduced at the Cumberland regional hospital as well as a clinical practice lead role to support the nursing staff.
As well, she said, nursing assignments are changed based on patient acuity and needs.
Northcott said the NSHA is actively recruiting nursing positions for the medical unit.