Winnipeg ER physicians pen letter to government over nursing concerns

Dozens of Winnipeg emergency room physicians signed a letter sent to the provincial government expressing 'grave concerns' over nursing in city hospital emergency departments.

The letter states the situation is critical as morale and staffing are at all-time lows and many senior emergency department (ED) nurses have resigned with others planning to follow.

The authors want immediate action taken before more ED nurses leave and patient care is compromised.

The letter notes the reasons nurses are leaving are varied, but the physicians said they believe it’s because the nurses are feeling undervalued, unsupported and disrespected by their hospitals, the WRHA/Shared Health and the provincial government.

The workload for hospital EDs is exceptionally high, according to the letter authors. Increasing numbers of COVID-19 positive people showing up at ED doors, the ongoing meth crisis and the related incidences of verbal and physical aggression, numerous high-risk procedures and regular patient care is putting ED nurses at risk of burnout.

The letter goes on to say ED nurses are exhausted from consecutive shifts and mandated overtime, resulting in lost commitment to the health care system. Consequently, many EDs are short-staffed or temporality partially closed, affecting patient care.

Shared Health said newly graduated nurses are being used to fill vacancies, but the doctors said in their letter that their lack of experience places more of a burden on experienced staff.

A spokesperson for Shared Health said the number of vacant nursing positions in Winnipeg’s six EDs is nearly identical compared year over year but more positions in the region have inflated vacancy rates.

They said recruitment and retention efforts are ongoing, but noted the lack of senior practicum nursing students in facilities because of the pandemic has adversely impacted recruitment efforts. Seventy-five students completed their practicum at HSC this past April, 45 began theirs in the last month with another 62 scheduled to begin in June.

Letter authors said the loss of even one experienced nurse on shift could affect patient care. The loss of multiple nurses in the middle of a pandemic is dangerous.

“I think it’s an incredible show of support,” said Darlene Jackson, president of the Manitoba Nurses Union.

“They’re right. We are in a nursing shortage. We are in a critical nursing shortage. We are seeing vacancies in our emergency departments 30 to 33 per cent vacancies in our emergency departments.”

Jackson said the shortage absolutely impacts the way ER nurses do their job and their ability to have time off.

Jackson said the union has always wanted the province to reward all nurses working during the pandemic with a pay increase.

In December the MNU reached an agreement with the province giving nurses working in priority areas pay allowances.

“The government came to us with very, very focused funding that was incredibly disrespectful to nurses. We managed to negotiate that agreement out to include more nurses and to include some of the hardest hit areas, but they absolutely would not recognize that emergency nurses and urgent care nurses are basically the ambassadors at the doors of our facilities seeing these COVID patients first,” said Jackson.

She said the current agreement for pay increases applies to nurses working in intensive care units, designated COVID units, long-term care facilities, any area that is in an active outbreak, and any area where there is 50 per cent or more patients who are COVID-positive—the latter category is where Jackson thinks emergency departments should be included.

Jackson said the Manitoba Nurses Union would be happy to revisit the agreement for the COVID pay increase to include ER nurses.

In a statement Acting Minister of Health and Seniors Care Kelvin Goertzen said the province appreciates the insights of the doctors and shares their concerns on ED nurses.

“We understand that the Shared Health and Winnipeg Regional Health Authority employers have made clear shift premium proposals for these hard pressed ED nurses, with retroactivity. And we understand those proposals remain on the table,” reads the statement.

With files from CTV's Michelle Gerwing