Wave of health-care resignations in Northern B.C. as calls grow for audit

A wave of resignations among Northern B.C. health-care workers – including half the doctors in the intensive care unit of the region’s biggest hospitals – is raising alarms among civic leaders already calling for an audit.

Sources told CTV News that frustration has boiled over after health-care workers raised dire warnings about the Northern Health authority nearing collapse, but were unaddressed. Now doctors across the region have tendered their resignations.

Municipal and provincial leaders describe warning the provincial government of the crisis of staffing levels and the deteriorating situation. However, their calls for a “comprehensive audit” of Northern Health, namely around services provided, deficiencies and gaps in those services, and what’s leading to staffing issues, have been brushed aside.

“(Staff shortages are) not just a British Columbia issue, but I think British Columbia could really be a leader in peeling the layers of the onion back and looking at what can we do better?” said Fort St. John Mayor Lori Ackerman.

“In any organization, if you're not willing to as a leader in that organization, take one for the team andI listen to the hard comments and questions, you will lose staff. it is an employee's market out there, they will leave." 

LOCAL LEADERS URGING ACTION

Northern B.C. is dominated by Opposition Liberal MLAs who’ve also been trying to draw attention to concerns that the health-care staffing exodus in the sparsely populated north is particularly acute.

“We're already having a hard time recruiting doctors. We do not need to have a reputation up north that this is not a place where they’re welcome and we need to fix that,” said Peace River-South MLA, Mike Bernier.

“These smaller communities, you lose one or two doctors and that's huge…that means people have to travel to the Lower Mainland and that’s not always easy.”

There’s also no guarantee that doctors, nurses and other health-care professionals will choose to stay in British Columbia if they leave the north, raising the possibility the province could face an even tighter supply, which would increase already-ballooning waits for care.

THE MINISTER RESPONDS

CTV News asked the health minister how he planned to address Northern Health’s staffing issue. While Adrian Dix acknowledged there are long-term challenges with recruiting health-care workers to work in small, rural and remote communities, he downplayed the current situation

“I think one of the ways you attract people to the public health-care system is by building extraordinary new facilities where people want to work, where they can work to the full extent of their skills and their best skills,” he said, touting the construction of new hospitals in several communities and upgrades in others. 

In an email, a Ministry of Health spokesperson reiterated Dix’s position that an audit would take too long and that they’d already acted by dedicating more than $6 million toward hiring and retention of workers in the north. They also announced 600 new nursing positions at provincial universities with an emphasis on northern seats to be filled by northern residents, who Dix believed would stay and serve their communities.

“The plan that was put in place has contributed and hundreds of nurses and other workers have benefited from those plans since we put them in place last fall and we're just going to continue to do that work,” he insisted. 

Training and hiring new health-care workers has been a consistent talking point for Dix and his government, but CTV News has interviewed and communicated with several dozen health-care workers who expressed their frustration at that approach.

They point out that without meaningful, substantive action on the challenges of workload, communication and pay that are prompting veteran staff to leave, fresh recruits will simply burn out and walk away from health-care careers for the same reasons.

“This is really an opportunity for this government to celebrate our health-care workers,” said Ackerman.

“They can do that by looking at how we can make their lives better, their working conditions better.”