Nurse Staffing Crisis

Illustration of nurse silhouettes standing together with cluster of numbers to the right
What creative solutions are out there to address this chronic problem?

How often do nurses in BC use the term "working short" each week?

"Too often," says BCNU President Aman Grewal who, before running for a senior leadership position at the union, worked as a site leader at Surrey Memorial Hospital. She knows first hand what it's like to work in a unit with soaring overcapacity and minimal staffing.

"Having to 'work short' is embedded into nurses' experiences in most health-care facilities these days," she reports, "and it's having a devastating impact on our members across the province."

Grewal says BCNU is fully committed to addressing this systemic crisis.

"That's why we always aim to bring creative solutions to the table in our meetings with government and health authorities," she reports. "Our proposals include short- and long-term ideas."

The province's staffing crisis is not new. In fact, the union has been sounding the alarm for years, speaking out in the media and raising public awareness through advertising campaigns. Today, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that the nurse shortage isn't just impacting individual nurses and patients, but health-care teams across the entire system.

There's no denying the problem is complex – and one that involves issues of both supply and demand.

Nursing schools are seeing interest soar. In 2021, UBC's school of nursing received 860 applications for 120 available spots. Douglas College had a one-year waitlist.

BCNU welcomed the government's February announcement of 602 new nursing education seats at 17 post-secondary institutions around BC, but the union also called it a drop in the bucket.

"It's a promising step to tackling the problem, but it's not near enough seats to accommodate the demand," says Grewal. "We must also look at retaining nurses in the system right now – and recruiting those who are waiting to bring their skills to the bedside."

"BCNU is fully committed to addressing this systemic crisis."

- BCNU President
  Aman Grewal

The Nurses' Bargaining Association Employed Student Nurse Program is a good example of what can happen when all parties come to the table to tackle the nursing shortage. Launched in 2001 following negotiations between BCNU, student nurses, employers, educators and the Registered Nurses' Association of BC, the program is a paid practicum that enables students to gain valuable clinical experience in health care facilities, in either special paid part-time or part-year positions.

"The third-and-fourth year nursing students get valuable experience and are an extra set of skilled hands on that shift, supporting patients and providing patient care." says Grewal. "The program is being well-received because everyone wins."

BCNU has also spent time advocating for internationally educated nurses (IENs), asking that the government streamline the current, complicated process many must go through before they are licensed to work in BC.

Grewal says she'd like to see the province embrace the skills, diversity, and richness of IENs and recognize what they could bring to the health-care system.

"I heard someone say the other day that varied backgrounds, training and skills should be judged as advantages, and I couldn't agree more," she remarks. "We know that many of these nurses would be a welcome addition to health-care teams across the province."

Keeping new nurses in the profession is another priority, says Grewal, who notes that BCNU would like to see changes at the health authority level to improve workplace culture, which can sometimes include unexpected redeployment, little orientation, and a barrage of non-nursing duties that take up a nurse's precious time while on shift.

"We have to provide relief and incentives to the thousands of nurses who are close to the brink and considering leaving the profession two years into this pandemic," adds Grewal. "This could come in the form of more health care support workers, hiring bonuses, pay incentives, and housing subsidies."

The nurse shortage is a crisis being felt across the entire country and globe. As BC manages two public health emergencies, extreme weather events, and a growing and aging population, Grewal says it's time to come together to preserve the health-care system for the future.

"Nurses want to be part of the solution and are ready to come to the table to work with all parties to figure out a way through this crisis," she says. "This isn't something that can be fixed overnight – but we must work hard to come up with creative solutions that are focused on improving staffing levels and taking the burden off nurses who are providing care today." •

UPDATE (Spring 2022)

UPDATED: November 24, 2022

Vital Signs

According to the supply forecast contained in the most recent BC Labour Market Outlook, the province will see a sharp increase in immigrant supply compared to previous forecasts, reflecting an increase in federal immigration targets. About 346,000 new immigrant workers are expected over the 2021-2031 period. This includes both permanent and temporary immigrants. Across industries, immigrants’ share of job openings will increase from 31 percent to 34 percent.

Nurses openings for immigrants and migrants through 2031

  RN/RPN Supply LPN Supply
Immigrants 5,190 1,120
Migrants from other provinces 3,080 1,000

Immigration drives higher labour demand as well as labour supply. Immigrants are a vital part of communities across the province. They bring fresh perspectives and new ideas, and contribute to making our communities vibrant, diverse and prosperous.

Source: British Columbia Labour Market Outlook 2021 Edition

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