The president of the Manitoba Nurses Union says she is “alarmed” after seeing data that shows vacancy rates for nursing positions in Northern Manitoba continue to be on the rise, and she believes it could be a matter of time until someone loses their life in the north because they can’t access proper health care or emergency services.
“These numbers are very bad, this is very concerning,” MNU president Darlene Jackson said Aug. 15, after seeing data that was obtained by the Winnipeg Sun that shows the total nursing vacancies in the Northern Regional Health Authority, as well as vacancies at each individual health care facility in the region.
The data, which was sent to the Sun by the NRHA, shows that total nursing vacancies for the entire health region sit at 29 per cent, up from a vacancy rate of 22 per cent that was reported by the NRHA in November 2021.
“This should be a wake-up call to the government that we are in a critical situation,” Jackson said.
According to the NRHA, 134 of the 444 nursing positions in the region are currently vacant.
But those numbers vary greatly between health care facilities and communities, as the numbers show a 100 per cent nursing vacancy rate at the Leaf Rapids health centre, where the emergency department is currently closed, meaning the closest available emergency department is about 105 kilometres away in Lynn Lake.
There is also currently an 89 per cent vacancy rate in Lynn Lake, and nursing vacancies sit at 60 per cent in Snow Lake, 57 per cent in Gillam, 34 per cent in Thompson, 26 per cent in The Pas, and 13 per cent in Flin Flon.
Jackson said the numbers are “alarming” because of how they affect the nurses that are working in the north, and affect residents simply trying to access adequate health care.
“It has a huge impact on those communities, because it is often hours to get to the closest ER if the one in their community is closed, and in an emergency that can be the difference between life and death.” Jackson said.
She said she has also watched the nursing shortages in Northern Manitoba become a “vicious cycle” as working conditions because of those shortages are pushing more nurses to quit their jobs, or retire earlier than they had planned.
“Nurses are working short-staffed every single shift, but still have the same amount of patients to care for, and I know that is taking a really hard toll on them,” Jackson said. “We see some get to the point where they just leave, because they just finally say, ‘I am done, and I just don’t want to continue like this.’
“This government has to act quickly because this is a crisis, and I have nurses telling me every day, ‘I was going to hold on a few more years, but I just can’t maintain it like this anymore.’ ”
The staffing shortages are also taking a toll on some Northern Manitoba residents, including Leaf Rapids resident Liz Charrier, who wrote an open letter to the NRHA back in January in which she said residents in her community were “begging” for adequate health care and emergency services.
“We’re asking, we’re begging that our health and well-being finally be taken seriously,” Charrier wrote in her letter. “Just take a minute to imagine that you or someone you love was in dire need of immediate medical attention. Now imagine travelling one hour to see the nearest doctor, by this point you could be dead.
“This is the everyday fear and reality for the community members in Leaf Rapids.”
An NRHA spokesperson admitted they continue to struggle to recruit and to retain nurses in Northern Manitoba.
“In many cases we compete for health professionals in high demand in the face of national and even global shortages,” the spokesperson said. “It’s a fact of life that competing against similar positions in the south and in more populated centres is proving to be extremely difficult, if not near impossible.
“That said, we will not, and have not given up.”
A spokesperson for Manitoba Health Minister Audrey Gordon said Aug. 15 “nursing staff challenges are an issue all provinces are facing, and have been a particular challenge in Northern Manitoba.
“Our government has committed $4.3 million for 37 additional nurse training seats at the University College of the North. This is part of our larger plan to add close to 400 new nursing education seats, and the creation of a third nursing class intake.”
— Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the government of Canada.