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Thunder Bay, Ont., hospital struggles to expand services despite having more nurses than pre-pandemic

A nursing shortage at Thunder Bay’s regional hospital is keeping its transitional care unit from running at full capacity and limiting the expansion of operating room hours, says a top official at the northwestern Ontario facility.

The Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre faces the same staffing challenges as the rest of the province and Canada, said Adam Vinet, the hospital’s executive vice-president of patient experience and chief nursing executive.

“When we’re moving back to normal operations, or pre-COVID, to meet the clinical needs of our community while still managing the pandemic there are going to be some staffing challenges,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is meet the community needs and we’re using more nursing as a hospital than we’ve ever done before as COVID has changed us.

“We do more immunization and vaccination clinics for COVID. We’ve had to increase our operating room capacity, surgical daycare capacity, recovery room capacity, and that takes increased amounts of nurses.”

Vinet said the hospital has more nurses working than before the pandemic, with some returning on a casual basis to assist with vaccination clinics and the COVID-19 assessment centre.

The current nursing complement is about 1,450, though Vinet said it’s hard to pinpoint an ideal target.

Thunder Bay, Ont., hospital struggles to expand services despite having more nurses than pre-pandemic
‘What we’re trying to do is meet the community needs and we’re using more nursing as a hospital than we’ve ever done before as COVID has changed us,’ says Vinet. (Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre)

“The more nurses we can have, the better,” Vinet said. 

“Right now, for example, we’re only using 32 beds at the transitional care unit. Historically, we’ve had up to 64 beds there that we’ve been able to staff. These areas are opportunities. There are also patient needs we need to look at within our own walls. Can we get more staff — and we’d happily take more staff — to increase operating room times.”

Vinet said hospital administration has processes to ensure patient care isn’t affected by the nursing shortage.

“Internally on a day-to-day basis we work hand in hand with staff to find the best areas and use our staffing we have in the building and our beds available in the most efficient way possible.”

To address the nursing shortage, the health sciences centre is involved in a regional task force looking at ways to recruit staff in northern Ontario, Vinet said, and is working with universities and colleges on ways to increase enrolment, as well exploring the possibility of an international nursing program.

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‘Nurses are burning out’

Ontario Nurses Association president Vicki McKenna said she believes the Thunder Bay hospital is doing everything it can to address the vacancies, but faces the same challenges as many other parts of the province.

“I know the nurses, every day off they’re being asked to come in for overtime. They’re working beyond their scheduled shifts,” she said.

“The nurses are burning out. They’re really tired. It’s been almost two years [since the pandemic began] and many have had little if any vacation time off. It’s not about going on a big trip — it’s just about respite really and some recovery time.” 

Thunder Bay, Ont., hospital struggles to expand services despite having more nurses than pre-pandemic
Vicki McKenna, president of the Ontario Nurses Association president, says staff across the province are burning out from staffing shortages and nearly two years of working in a pandemic. (ONA/Twitter)

Across Ontario, many nurses who are eligible to retire but had been planning to work longer are choosing to leave, and some in the middle of their careers are reconsidering their future, McKenna said.

“They’re feeling stress and anxiety. They want to help. They want to do the best they can, but the hours they’re being asked to work, they’re finding it’s taking a physical and mental toll.”

McKenna believes a lack of workforce planning by current and previous provincial governments has led to staff shortages. Ontario has the lowest rate of registered nurses per population in Canada, she said, adding the province would need 22,000 more to meet the national average.

Northern and rural settings, areas that have historically had challenges, need targeted strategies to help keep nurses wanting to work there, especially given the shortage has meant more opportunities to work in other parts of Canada or the United States, McKenna said.

“They do have to offer recruitment, whether it be bonuses or assistance, to get people there,” she said of providers in northern Ontario. “It’s also sometimes about the young people who leave the area to go to school and how we get them back to their hometown or where their families are located.”

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