Sask. patient care at risk due to short staffing, nurses say overwhelmingly in survey

Saskatchewan Union of Nurses president Tracy Zambory says a new survey paints a grim picture of health care in the province. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC - image credit)
Saskatchewan Union of Nurses president Tracy Zambory says a new survey paints a grim picture of health care in the province. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC - image credit)

The Saskatchewan Union of Nurses (SUN) says the results of recent survey of registered nurses should be cause for alarm within the government.

SUN president Tracy Zambory said nurses overwhelmingly believe patient care has worsened over the course of their career. More than 1,600 SUN members completed the March questionnaire.

Zambory said 85 per cent of respondents reported patients being put at risk due to short staffing in the past year

"Members are telling us things are bad, that there are near misses in the system, that patients aren't getting the care they require, and that people are considering leaving the profession."

Zambory said 58 per cent of respondents said they have thought about leaving nursing in the past 12 months.

"Nothing has changed. It's only getting worse. So it is a very damning," Zambory said.

OT, travel nurse spending increasing

Zambory said the government can address concerns immediately by bringing registered nurses into discussions about improving the system, rather than leaving them on the sidelines.

She said a funded, rather than voluntary, mentorship program that was previously successful under the Brad Wall government would help younger nurses and those new to the province.

"We were able to go from, at that time, about 800 full-time equivalents short to a surplus because they chose to listen to registered nurses. They chose to form committees with registered nurses working right on the front lines and it was very successful. I was part of those committees. It worked."

Zambory also suggested a retention bonus of $10,000 for mid to late-career nurses to stay in the profession. She said similar programs were implemented in Nova Scotia and British Columbia "incredibly successfully."

She said both of those initiatives could happen in the short term and improve conditions in hospitals.

Zambory said the amount of money being spent on on overtime for SUN registered nurses, coupled with a reliance on more expensive travel contract nurses, show the province is not spending wisely.

She said the government is on track to spend $70 million on contract nursing in 2024.

Zambory said registered nurses worked just under 1.5 million hours of overtime last year.

"There can be no argument that we don't have the money to do this."

According to data from the Saskatchewan Health Authority acquired through an access to information request, contract nurses worked 102,500 hours, or the equivalent of 52 full-time positions, in 2021 at a cost of $12.3 million. In two years that increased to 493,00 hours and 253 FTEs for $59 million.

"Overtime hours are double pay, so the amount of money that we are spending on overtime, if you add it together with agency nurses, we are burning money in this province in absolutely the wrong place," Zambory said.

No recent meetings

Zambory said she has not had a meaningful meeting with Health Minister Everett Hindley in some time.

"Even though we continue to try to meet with the government and have conversations to get things going in the right direction, we can't seem to crack the nut with them."

The collective agreement SUN had with the Saskatchewan Association of Health Organizations (SAHO) expired in March. Zambory said the two sides are in the process of deciding on dates to negotiate a new deal.

She said the results of this recent survey will play a role in those talks.

The health minister was not made available for an interview by publication time.

When asked in the legislature recently about the reliance on contract nurses, Hindley said it was not a permanent solution.

"Here in Saskatchewan, as with other provinces and territories, there is a utilization of contract nurses when necessary in order to either keep facilities open or to fill shifts," Hindley said.

The government has pointed to its Health Human Resources Action Plan to recruit, train and retain health-care workers as a key strategy for improving the health system.