By Mike Renzella
The Haldimand Press
HALDIMAND—With a host of issues facing critical health care workers across the province and at home, local hospitals and long-term care facilities are finding it harder and harder to fill staff positions that are desperately needed.
“We are functional, but constant staffing challenges and overtime are necessary. We do not have the ability to do some of our usual activities, including education, as we cannot backfill staff so they can attend their education,” said Haldimand War Memorial Hospital (HWMH) and Edgewater Gardens President and CEO Sharon Moore, who said on a scale of severity from 1-10, Edgewater is hovering between a 6-7, while HWMH is sitting at a firm 7.
“Staffing challenges are happening regularly, and for now we are holding our own,” she added. “It is tough to fill vacant positions and we are fortunate that our dedicated staff are helping out when they can by doing overtime and additional shifts to maintain safe patient care at all times.”
At Haldimand’s other major hospital, West Haldimand General Hospital (WHGH) in Hagersville, things aren’t quite as dire, but issues still persist: “Our Senior Leadership Team is well aware of our nursing shortage and they are doing everything they can to retain and recruit new nurses to our community hospital,” said Aaron Gautreau, Director of Communications and Public Relations for WHGH.
According to Moore, there are many factors contributing to the shortage: ”It is a historical issue as hospitals and LTC homes were struggling with staffing prior to the pandemic. Some of the factors that affect us now are the overall nursing shortage, early retirements, our rural location, ongoing challenges with employee leaves of absence for a variety of reasons, children staying home requiring parents to be home, and the increased availability of positions in other organizations.”
Gautreau added, “We have seen several nurses retire from the profession. At the same time, we are not seeing enough new nurses entering the workforce. The pandemic has certainly played a significant role in the national nursing shortage. Some nurses took other health care jobs that offer more regular hours. But I think more than anything it is a supply and demand issue. All other hospitals are competing for the same nurses, and there is a limited amount of nurses available to hire.”
With the pandemic causing a significant burn out amongst staff, Moore said some workers close to retirement are leaving the profession early, while others are seeking other opportunities, including outside of health care.
“More and more people are seeking a work-life balance. We’ve seen nurses leave acute-care settings and go to clinics or public health units that offer Monday to Friday jobs. Also, the pandemic has created more health care related jobs, such as vaccine clinics and assessment centres, and hospitals are still trying to cover their bases with the same number of nurses,” said Gautreau.
Recently, vaccine policies for health care workers across the province have issued ultimatums: get vaccinated or go on an unpaid leave. This included Haldimand County, with nursing staff at County-run Grandview Lodge and paramedic staff having until November to be fully immunized to avoid being sent home.
“The vaccine policies are causing concern about losing a percentage of our staff and then being unable to replace them. We are planning as best we can to adjust to the many changes we’ve had throughout this pandemic,” explained Moore. “Health care staffing needs to remain flexible and since both the hospital and Edgewater continue to provide care around the clock, creative solutions will be necessary to ensure our residents and patients receive the care they need.”
Eventual nursing staff is expected from the student nursing programs run by local colleges, but those programs were impacted by COVID as well. HMWH is working with placement coordinators and have started taking some new students in, but not at the same level as pre-COVID: “We are not sure when student nursing placements will be back to normal.”
While some bigger city hospitals use tactics including aggressive signing bonuses, Moore says that HWMH and Edgewater Gardens tries a different approach to attracting new staff: “As a smaller rural hospital and LTC home, we are fortunate to get to know each other and our patients/residents very well. In fact, many of our staff will say we are like a family. It also doesn’t hurt that our cafeteria makes food from scratch and we also offer free parking!”
Additionally, she said newly graduated nurses may also qualify for a tuition support program or a Nursing Graduate Guarantee position.
Over at WHGH, Gautreau offered a look at how they are addressing the shortage: “The hospital’s Senior Leadership Team has put together a comprehensive strategy that focuses on recruitment and retention. I can tell you that we are prioritizing recruitment and offering incentives to attract highly skilled nurses to fill the positions we need. We are also promoting a federal government student loan forgiveness program that is offered to nurses who work in rural hospitals like ours. We understand that there is no one solution, and we look forward to working together with our many stakeholders to address the nursing shortage locally and across the province.”
Despite the efforts being made locally, some health care experts are predicting this shortage could last for years.
“It takes several years to train nurses,” said Moore on this prediction. “Nursing supply in Ontario has always fluctuated between too few or too many. When we are short, we ramp up educational placements and then we have too many nurses who cannot obtain jobs. There needs to be a well-planned strategy, over the long term, to determine the expected demand for nurses in the future.”