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Enrolment in critical care nursing course drops as WRHA pledges to recruit nurses

cbc.ca logo cbc.ca 2019-03-05 Erin Brohman
the inside of a room: The cardiac surgery program at St. Boniface Hospital relies on nurses trained in critical care, but there's a shortage of nurses trained to work in the post-operative unit and a meagre number enrolled in training. © CBC News The cardiac surgery program at St. Boniface Hospital relies on nurses trained in critical care, but there's a shortage of nurses trained to work in the post-operative unit and a meagre number enrolled in training.

Enrolment is down in the course required to train nurses to work in the cardiac critical care units at St. Boniface Hospital, but the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority says it's working to recruit nurses in hopes of reducing the cardiac surgery wait-list.

Only four nurses are enrolled in a critical care program offered twice a year at St. Boniface Hospital and Health Sciences Centre, the Manitoba Nurses Union says. The wait-list for cardiac surgery has doubled in recent months, due in large part to a shortage of nurses trained to work in the area.

"That is certainly going to have an impact on their ability to fill vacancies and fill shifts in the cardiac program," said Darlene Jackson, MNU president.

"We know there's vacancies in that program and we also know that there's a chronic nursing shortage in Manitoba.… This is worrying.… This is not going to solve the staffing issues in that department, that's for certain."

In January and February, 33 nurses graduated from the six-month course, 12 of whom recently took positions in the two critical care units at St. Boniface Hospital. One of those, the intensive care cardiac surgery unit, is where all patients go after cardiac surgery. The unit has 14 beds and generally needs 14 nurses to maintain a 1:1 nurse to patient ratio.

Jackson said for the past year, the unit has had "excessive" rates of overtime and high rates of mandated overtime. The rotation schedule for nurses changed as part of the health system overhaul, she said, and with the elimination of several part-time positions, several tenured nurses sought positions elsewhere.

"It's very difficult to recruit nurses to an area that is having all these issues," she said.

"For nurses who are already working in an area that's highly specialized, that is stressful, having that amount of overtime, especially if it's mandated overtime … just makes it so much more stressful."

Recruitment of critical care nurses

The chief health operations officer for the WRHA said the authority is taking measures to address the staffing issues.

"We have a working group with not only the St. Boniface Hospital and the region to look at the factors and address them, which include the recruitment of critical care nurses," said Krista Williams.

This week, 104 patients are waiting in the community for cardiac surgery, 64 of whom are "fit and ready" for surgery, she said. Fourteen patients are waiting in hospital, seven of whom will be operated on this week.

In the past six months, 120 elective cardiac surgeries have been rescheduled.

The high rescheduling rate is due in large part to the staffing issues, Williams said.

Enrolment in the critical care nursing course is always higher in the fall intake, she also said. While the intensive care cardiac surgery unit staffing levels are a concern, she said, she's optimistic the closure of other intensive care units in Winnipeg will bring more nurses to the unit.

"The reason for consolidation of critical care is to be able to consolidate the nursing skill set and that will definitely help us retain nurses in a highly specialized area and retain that skill set," she said.

"The staffing this week is very good. We're pleased with it this week. We're monitoring it very closely, but recognizing that we still have to look at trying to recruit nurses long-term."

Jackson said the loss of 75 spots in the nursing program at Red River College doesn't help.

She encouraged the health authority and government officials to talk to the nurses.

"We can help with efficiencies in health care. We're on the ground floor and we can see where the change needs to happen. Someone just has to bring us to the table."

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