Time to fix the nursing problem

Nurse with senior patient

Sometimes bad things need to happen in order to get people’s attention. The floods in British Columbia have directed and sharpened our focus on the wellbeing of our planet on which we hope to live out a life of decency and respect for the gifts of nature. The COVID-19 pandemic is another one of those events that force us to do some serious reflection on matters that hardly ever enter our minds as we go along daily life.

The pandemic has and continue to take a toll on our health:  hospitalizations, long drawn-out after effects of the illness, death preceded by indescribable suffering, and mental disease directly related to the 20-odd months of isolation.

Along with this list of suffering is another list that involves nurses. They have been leaving the profession in droves, unable to accept or cope with the mental and physical toll they endure while attending to the needs of the sick that occupy almost every bed in Ontario hospitals. This has resulted in a dangerous shortage of nurses and other health professionals at a time when they are needed most.

The pandemic exacerbated a shortage that was identified years ago.  In 2014 the nurse-per-capita ratio (NPCR) was already in decline. In 2020 the Canadian NPCR was 814 for every 100,000 persons compared to Ontario at 665. Ontario would need at least 22,000 additional registered nurses to reach the national average.

A well-researched report in last Sunday’s Toronto Star (Nurses lost to bureaucracy – November 28th 2021) paints a disturbing picture both of bureaucratic shortsightedness and Canada’s condescending attitude towards people with professional qualifications acquired in other countries. It has had a profound effect on Ontario’s ability to care for its sick and infirm.

The report identifies the following:

  • Hundreds of potential foreign-trained nurses are caught in backlog at National Nursing Assessment Service, an outfit that vets and authenticate foreign credentials. The organization received over 7,000 applications in fiscal year ending March 2021
  • Many workers come to Canada as live-in caregivers with the plan of becoming nurses; many bring their nursing credentials
  • It takes years to acquire their Canadian professional designations at the prohibitive cost of $16,000 for a license, so, many abandon efforts to become a nurse
  • For those who persevere to qualify for membership in the Ontario College of Nursing, it can take 18 months, sometimes as long as three years, to get a license
  • There are thousands of these professionals living in Canada at any given time. In 2019, 4,500 applied to join the Ontario College of Nursing.

Last October, our government seemed to have finally got the message – Ontario Minister of Labour Monte McNaughton announced proposed legislation allowing internationally-trained immigrants to practice in the province. It would ditch the need to have Canadian experience and speed up the license registration and assessment processes. That’s good news for all trades and professions.

The Star report quotes a number of nurses who have stuck to their tasks since COVID-19 took hold.  With one voice they said that the system is on the brink of collapse – too few nurses and increased pressure on those who show up for every shift.

To say this is an emergency is to put it mildly, considering that the coronavirus continues on its destructive path. But the virus did not cause the near collapse, it simply exposed a health care system that was showing signs of decay for years.

We have the financial means to sort out the bureaucratic mess, and the human resources ready to fill the breach. The province must roll up its sleeves and fix it now.

All it takes is the will to do it. And it’s not really that hard to do.