Montreal hospitals backtrack on plan to hire unskilled workers as operating-room help

Operating room doctors at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto. (Geoff Koehler / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

A Montreal health authority is backtracking on a plan it had in the works this week to hire unskilled workers to replace nurses in two hospitals' operating rooms.

The Centre-South health district in Montreal had decided, because of a critical staff shortage, to post 10 job ads for "technical assistants" to work in the operating rooms at two east-end hospitals, Santa Cabrini and Maisonneuve-Rosemont.

The assistants were meant to do nurses' jobs in order to allow more surgeries to take place -- several operating rooms are currently closed due to lack of staff. The move was first reported by the Montreal Gazette.

But on Friday afternoon, after an outcry from nurses and other health-care staff, the health district said it was going to hold off on the idea and try to find a compromise.

"In recent months, the shortage of manpower, particularly nurses and nursing assistants, has had a significant impact on the operations of the operating room," spokesperson Valérie Lafleur told CTV News in a statement.

"We are currently looking for solutions that will reduce wait times for our patients and also relieve our staff who are too often monopolized by an overload of tasks."

However, she said, the Centre-South managers had heard the concerns and is creating a forum to discuss the problem.

"We believe that the solution must be considered with the various teams in our operating rooms," she said. "This is why focus groups with employees will be organized over the next few weeks in order to share the different points of view and jointly find a proposal suitable for all."

There is a massive backlog of surgeries in Montreal and Quebec after thousands of cancellations during the pandemic. Somewhere between 100,000 and 150,000 Quebecers are currently waiting for surgery.

There's also a record staffing shortage, particularly among nurses, despite several emergency programs to bring nursing students into hospitals and speed up foreign-trained nurses' permission to work in Quebec.

The "technical assistant" jobs that had been in the works required no post-secondary education. The district was planning to give them eight weeks of in-hospital training. Several staff members at the hospital threatened to quit if the plan was enacted, the Gazette reported.

Lafleur said that despite the talks now scheduled, the health district is sure that very unusual solutions will be needed.

"Considering that the labour shortage will not be absorbed in the coming months, we remain convinced that in order to allow our users to be operated on within a reasonable time, we must open ourselves up to new ways of doing things," she wrote.

A major nurses' union declined to comment in light of the news that the plan was being reconsidered.

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