‘Our communities have no idea what is really happening within those walls:’ Unions say hospital staffing shortages are impacting patient care

Unions representing 120,000 hospital workers are renewing their calls on the province to take immediate action to address a growing staffing crisis, which they say has been behind a number of recent emergency room and intensive care unit closures.

The Ontario Nurses’ Association (ONA), the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and SEIU Healthcare held a joint press conference on Friday morning to outline five measures that they want the Ford government to “immediately implement” as a means of both retaining existing healthcare workers and recruiting new ones.

The measures include repealing provincial legislation which caps public sector wage increases at one per cent, putting in place new financial incentives to discourage retirements and investing in on-site supports, such as childcare facilities.

The unions are also asking the province to “waive tuition and provide additional financial incentives” for aspiring healthcare workers who choose to study and practice in Ontario.

“Right now ERs are closing and ICUs and other units are cutting beds. I call it the silent closures because our communities have no idea what is really happening within those walls,” ONA President Cathryn Hoy told reporters, as she discussed the severity of the situation. Nurses have been asked to work back-to-back shifts, sometimes for 24 hours straight. Some sleep at the hospital in case they’re needed, others are called back in with as little as five hours between shifts. Some frontline healthcare care workers haven’t even had a vacation in two years. This situation didn’t happen overnight to be clear. It is a result of years of underinvestment and understaffing. But this is an opportunity for our government to step up and do what’s right for Ontarios.”

Friday’s appeal by the three unions comes on the heels of Ontario Health Executive Vice-President Dr. Chris Simpson telling CP24 earlier this week that the staffing shortage affecting hospitals has become a “crisis.”

For his part, Premier Doug Ford has insisted that “Ontarians continue to have access to the care they need when they need it,” though the union leaders who spoke on Friday largely took issue with that assessment.

“We know that rural and northern hospitals in Ontario and communities as far apart as Alexandria, Perth, Hearst, Kenora and Red Lake are struggling to keep services open and their ERs functioning, we know that big city hospitals like the University Health Network, William Osler Health Center SickKids Lakeridge, Hamilton Health Sciences, Kingston Health Sciences, and the Ottawa Hospital are struggling or have closed ICU units or ERs,” Michael Hurley, who is the president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions, said. “Our internal polling also suggests that the workforce is exhausted and demoralized and that without some significant changes the exodus of hospital staff will only accelerate. We must face the fact that this situation will get worse, not better without a vigorous plan to deal with the crisis in the short term and in the long term.”

Staff shortages have been reported at hospitals across the province over the last few months, with burnout after more than two years of increased workloads due to COVID-19 often being cited as a factor.

Earlier this week the University Health Network confirmed that Toronto General Hospital has been on a critical care bed alert since July 22.

The alert means that the three intensive care units at the hospital are at or near capacity and are triaging patients.

The Hospital for Sick Children has also confirmed that some members of its Critical Care Response Team are being temporarily reassigned to support direct patient care in the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) on a case-by-case basis.

“The government still has no real comprehensive plan to staff up our hospitals and this is completely unacceptable,” Hurley said on Friday. “I’m concerned that the government may think that this is simply a problem caused by vacations and once the vacation season is over, this problem will go away. But the problem is that we have a workforce that is exhausted and demoralized with impossible workloads.”

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