There is no health care without health care workers

Linda Silas – Quoi Media

Like many nurses in Canada, I welcomed last week’s announcement that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh had reached an agreement with health care at its heart. As nurses, we have long advocated for national pharmacare, long-term care standards and dental care, and we recognize affordable housing as an essential social determinant of health.

While these measures will most certainly improve Canadians’ health outcomes, the deal fails to recognize the perilous state of our health care system. A decades-long health care worker shortage continues to grow unabated and has left our health system on life support and on the verge of collapse.

Nurses are now hinging their hopes on the agreement’s promise of immediate “additional ongoing investments” in Canada’s health system, including more nurses. They are desperately hoping to see significant targeted funding aimed at proven retention and recruitment initiatives, reinforced by real accountability measures.

Yes, we need more health care workers, nurses, and doctors. At the same time, we also need to keep the nurses we have in their jobs to train, mentor and retain a new generation of nurses. Retention and recruitment are two sides of the same coin.

In the fourth quarter of 2021, Statistics Canada reported 126,000 vacancies in the health care and social assistance sector, an all-time high. Nationally, the number of vacant nursing positions surpassed 34,000, a 133 per cent increase over a two-year period.

Late-career nurses are revising their retirement plans. Meanwhile, new nurses are shocked by the untenable working conditions on the front lines and are reassessing their career choices.

Grueling workloads and staffing shortfalls have taken their toll. A national Viewpoints Research Poll commissioned by the CFNU found that severe burnout among nurses had risen to 45 per cent. Nurses are grappling with high levels of stress. Polling indicates that just over half of nurses are considering leaving their jobs this year. Of those, one in five may leave nursing altogether. Even if nurses don’t leave immediately, over 20 per cent of health care workers are eligible to retire by 2026.

Along with more than 60 other health care organizations, the CFNU also supports the agreement’s commitment to better data, which we hope will inform a robust approach to health human resources planning. To this end, the federal government must establish a dedicated coordinating body to address critical health workforce data gaps.

Without a commitment to better data collection, coordination, analysis and planning tools, we can expect inadequate planning to continue now and in the future.

Health workers represent a significant public investment. In 2019 this amounted to nearly eight per cent of GDP. More than 10 per cent of all employed Canadians work in health care. And yet, we know very little about our health workforce. We lack the most basic data and tools needed for planning. To plan for the future and build a responsive health care system, we need the ability to forecast how the workforce will change.

The federal government must assume a leadership role by collecting better and more complete data. Meanwhile, the provinces, territories and regions will benefit from a more strategic and holistic approach to health workforce planning.

Throughout this pandemic, nurses have shouldered the burden of a short-staffed and under-funded health care sector. It’s time to do right by health care workers and invest in a stronger health care system. Linda Silas is a nurse and President of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, representing nearly 200,000 nurses and student nurses across the country.