Home Health care provider Guest column: There is no healthcare without healthcare workers

Guest column: There is no healthcare without healthcare workers

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By Linda Silas

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Like many nurses in Canada, I welcomed the recent announcement that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh had reached an agreement on health care.

As nurses, we have long advocated for national pharmacare, long-term care standards and dental care, and we recognize that affordable housing is a key social determinant of health.

While these measures will most certainly improve health outcomes for Canadians, the deal fails to address the perilous state of our health care system. A decades-long shortage of healthcare workers continues to grow unabated and has left our healthcare system on life support and on the brink of collapse.

Nurses are now pinning their hopes on the deal’s promise of immediate “additional continued investments” in Canada’s health care system, including more nurses.

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They desperately hope to see significant targeted funding aimed at proven retention and recruitment initiatives, backed up by real accountability measures.

Yes, we need more health workers, nurses and doctors. At the same time, we also need to keep the nurses we have in their jobs to train, mentor and retain a new generation of nurses.

Retention and recruitment are two sides of the same coin.

In the fourth quarter of 2021, Statistics Canada reported 126,000 vacancies in the health care and social assistance sector, an all-time high. Nationally, the number of nursing vacancies exceeded 34,000, an increase of 133% over a two-year period.

Late-career nurses are reviewing their pension plans. Meanwhile, new nurses are shocked by the unsustainable working conditions on the front lines and are reassessing their career choices.

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Grueling workloads and staff shortages have taken their toll.

A national Viewpoints Research poll commissioned by the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions (CFNU) found that severe burnout among nurses had risen to 45%. Nurses struggle with high levels of stress.

A survey indicates that just over half of nurses plan to quit their jobs this year. Of these, one in five may leave nursing altogether. Even if nurses don’t leave immediately, more than 20% of healthcare workers will be able to retire by 2026.

Along with more than 60 other healthcare organizations, CFNU also supports the agreement’s commitment to better data, which we hope will inform a robust approach to health human resource planning.

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To this end, the federal government must establish a dedicated coordinating body to address critical health workforce data gaps.

Without a commitment to better tools for data collection, coordination, analysis and planning, we can expect inadequate planning to continue today and into the future.

Health workers represent an important public investment.

In 2019, this represented nearly 8% of GDP. More than 10% of all working Canadians work in health care. And yet, we know very little about our health workforce. We lack the most basic data and tools needed for planning.

To plan for the future and build a responsive health care system, we need to be able to predict the evolution of the workforce.

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The federal government must take a leadership role in collecting better and more complete data. Meanwhile, provinces, territories and regions will benefit from a more strategic and holistic approach to health workforce planning.

Throughout this pandemic, nurses have shouldered the burden of a short-staffed and underfunded health care sector. It’s time to do the right thing for healthcare workers and invest in a stronger healthcare system.

Linda Silas is a nurse and president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, which represents nearly 200,000 nurses and nursing students across the country.

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