Alberta hospitals turn to traveling nurses as staff shortages continue

As staffing shortages continue to plague Alberta hospitals, travel nurses contracted by private agencies are being used to fill in the gaps.

The use of employment agency nurses isn’t new, but it’s becoming more common as the practice is adopted in some of the province’s largest urban hospitals, according to United Nurses of Alberta.

“It shows that there is a real problem, that there is a very serious shortage,” said David Harrigan, director of labor relations at United Nurses of Alberta.

“Almost all major facilities have travel nurses.”

According to Harrigan, staffing agency nurses have been used in northern Alberta for years, and more recently, central Alberta hospitals have begun to look to agencies for front-line staff.

Now, he says, emergency rooms and intensive care units at Foothills Medical Center in Calgary and the University of Alberta Hospital in Edmonton are filling the gaps with traveling nurses.

“It’s a terrible solution to the problem because it’s a lot more expensive,” said Harrigan, who notes that some of these contract nurses can be paid up to double the amount AHS nurses receive.

And the union is concerned about how quickly temporary nurses can adapt.

“They’re not properly oriented to the facility. They don’t know all the procedures. In terms of continuity of care, that’s really a big problem.”

David Harrigan of the United Nurses of Alberta says traveling nurses are increasingly being used to address staffing shortages in hospitals. He says they are used in emergency rooms and intensive care units at Foothills Medical Center and University of Alberta Hospital. (Radio Canada)

200 employees under private contract

According to Alberta Health Services, nearly 200 registered nurses, licensed practical nurses and health care aides — supplied by staffing agencies — work in hospitals and continuing care homes across the province.

A total of 50,000 people hold these jobs.

The use of temporary frontline staff, according to the health authority, is a last resort in the face of mounting pressure on the health system.

“AHS has responded to increased pressure on our workforce using a number of strategies, including reassigning and redeploying staff to areas of greater need, redeployment training, increased hours overtime and temporary increase in hours for part-time staff, calling on existing staff for overtime and recruiting retirees, students and new hires from out of province,” the door-keeper said. speaks Kerry Williamson in an emailed statement to CBC News.

“Contract staff are brought in to provide temporary help in areas where we have exhausted other options with existing staff, and in accordance with collective agreements. Contract staff are never used in preference to qualified staff available for a location. /post given.”

According to Williamson, the use of placement agencies predates the pandemic and is happening, on a small scale, across the country.

The workers provided by the employment agencies come mainly from outside Alberta and none come from the United States.

As for the pay difference, AHS says it contracts private agencies, not individual nurses, and hourly rates are set by the agencies.

“We recognize that our staff have worked tirelessly and are grateful for the additional support at this time.”

Kathy Howe, executive director of the Alberta Association of Nurses, says agency nurses have been used on and off for years to ensure patients’ needs are met when recruitment fails. (Kathy Howe)

‘Exhausted’ nurses

“I think at this point anything can help,” said Kathy Howe, executive director of the Alberta Association of Nurses.

Frontline hospital staff, she says, are exhausted after two years of the pandemic.

“It can give nurses a break in the sense that they can work the shift they are supposed to. [and] not having their phone ring seven, eight times a day asking them to come in for extra shifts. And that can be very valuable,” she said.

“Even four nurses [or] eight nurses in one unit can really start to make a difference [and] just take some of that pressure off.”

According to Howe, agency nurses can be very experienced in environments such as the emergency room or intensive care and they can adapt quickly.

“It’s a short-term fix,” she said. “Sometimes there’s no other choice if you want to keep patients safe and you want to keep nurses safe.”

At the University of Alberta, Donna Wilson watches this trend unfold with concern.

“This is an entirely new and major development,” said Wilson, a registered nurse and professor in the faculty of nursing at the University of Alberta.

“You can’t think of it as just an automatic, easy transfer, like you can just bring them in, set them up and they start working the minute they start there. Normally they take a week to a month to orient themselves and some never do.”

She calls the use of travel nurses a “band-aid” solution and says a long-term strategy is needed to address the nursing crisis in Alberta.

“We are entering major nursing shortages in various countries, and now it is really homecoming. The pandemic, in particular, has created a high demand for emergency and intensive care nurses,” said Wilson said.

“It is sad that we have waited until now. Two years ago we could have started increasing enrollment in nursing programs and these nursing students could already be working in hospitals as nurses. nursing students.… But that didn’t happen.”

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