Health-care workers and health sector organizations say the high rate of burnout and staff shortages in hospitals across the country has become “endemic” — and they’re calling on the federal government to sit down with provinces and territories to find solutions.
The number of job vacancies among health-care practitioners — mostly in hospitals — increased almost 92 per cent in the September to December 2021 period compared to the same period pre-pandemic in 2019, Statistics Canada data show.
Paul-Émile Cloutier is CEO of HealthCareCAN, an organization that represents health organizations and hospitals. He said the situation is getting worse and leading to longer wait times and surgery delays.
‘The system is bleeding people at all levels and it’s not just the [intensive care unit] or the emergency, it’s across the board,” said Cloutier. “It’s like sleepwalking into a catastrophe.”
Cloutier said there are 13 different health-care systems in provinces and territories across the country and no central body collecting and analyzing data. His organization wants to see a new nationwide body that can deal with capacity issues and address the problem of vacancies caused by burnout.
Dr. Katharine Smart, president of the Canadian Medical Association, told CBC Power & Politics guest host David Cochrane on Friday that she met recently with Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos to discuss the issues facing Canada’s health-care system.
“I think what we need is federal leadership to really recognize these challenges that we’re seeing across the health-care system aren’t unique to one province or territory,” she said. “We need that leadership to really define what are the key elements where we need action, and we need the funding to go solve some of those problems.”
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Duclos announced in March that the federal government would give $2 billion to the provinces and territories to help clear the health-care backlog created by the years-long pandemic crisis.
Health Canada spokesperson Anne Génier said the government is taking other steps to reduce health system backlogs and address workforce burnout.
In a statement issued to CBC News, she pointed to a $140-million commitment in the federal budget to support the Wellness Together Canada online portal. The portal provides free and confidential mental health and substance abuse tools and services to frontline workers and makes legislative changes meant to keep workplaces free from threats, violence and harassment.
“A safe working environment is critical to support the retention of health-care workers,” Génier said in the statement.
Génier noted that the budget also provides $115 million over five years, and $30 million each year thereafter, to expand a program that recognizes foreign health-care credentials and enables health-care professionals from abroad to work in Canada. Millions of dollars more were earmarked to address the supply and retention of health-care workers in rural and remote Canadian communities, she said.
But Cloutier and Smart both said Ottawa must do more.
“There needs to be a first ministers’ meeting on health in partnership with some of the health partners,” Cloutier said. “I think that could be really helpful because I think the provinces understand that there’s also a big issue provincially.”
Ontario emergency room physician Dr. Kari Sampsel handed in her resignation in December 2021 after 15 years on the job. She said she feared her workplace was no longer safe for herself or her patients.
Sampsel said she had to treat patients in their vehicles in the hospital’s parking lot and hallways because the ER was overflowing and there were no beds available.
‘‘We do it all because it’s the right thing to do,” said Sampsel, who added she didn’t want to name her former hospital out of a concern about backlash. “This is what we are trained to do.”
Sampsel said that when the work climate started taking a toll on her mental health, she felt she had to step away.
“I no longer do a job I love because it was basically killing me,” she said.
Sampsel said these problems were present well before COVID’s arrival, although the pandemic helped to make them worse.
“COVID put pressure on other parts of the system, so now everyone feels like the [emergency] department,” she says.
She said her former department is now down a dozen full-time doctors and most of her colleagues are complaining of burnout.
“People are leaving for self-preservation. It’s not the work that’s the problem. It’s the circumstances,” she said.
The breaking point
HealthCareCAN is now asking the federal government for more funding to improve workplace environments and work-life balance, and for additional mental health services for staff.
“‘I think now what they need to do is to sit down with the provinces and have a really frank discussion about how to go forward on the issue of health human resources,” Cloutier said.
Danielle Chaput, an intensive care unit nurse in Ontario for 12 years, said she was diagnosed during the pandemic with compassion fatigue, clinical burnout and generalized anxiety disorder.
“As long as I have been a nurse, we have been short-staffed,” she said.
Chaput estimates that at one point, the patient-to-nurse ratio in the hospital was 8:1. She said her breaking point came when she realized she could no longer provide the care she felt her patients deserved because of circumstances beyond her control.
“I’ve never seen it this bad in terms of how many people are leaving,” she said.
Chaput said she’s taking fewer shifts at the hospital to work on her mental health. “It’s very hard to think about because nursing is all I’ve ever wanted to do,” she said.
“I grieve for the loss of a profession I once knew, and I’m working on separating my identity from my job.”
Chaput said she’s started a business to support health-care workers and others experiencing workplace burnout and anxiety.