Tracy Zambory, president of the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses (SUN), is raising the alarm in the province as emergency rooms (ERs) overflow, thousands of nurses are burned out on the job or quitting, and the provincial government continues to make decisions without consulting front line workers.
“We started to see the issues with COVID and we started to see that it was very clear that registered nurses were going to be abandoned by this government and it ended up that was the case,” Zambory said.
She said that the opinions of the front line professionals who hold the health care system on their shoulders are being disregarded despite desperate appeals.
“We do a survey every year of our members,” Zambory said. “And they are very disappointed and disillusioned in the leadership of this province, all the way up to the office of the premier.
“Over 70 per cent of our members are saying they’re very disillusioned with the leadership, because of the lack of respect, and the abandonment. They feel that they are not being listened to, they are being ignored.”
Last week, SUN used its social media platforms to declare that the provincial health care system has collapsed. Zambory said that her organization, which currently represents nearly 10,000 registered nurses (RNs), registered psychiatric nurses (RPNs), and nurse practitioners (NPs) in Saskatchewan, has been warning the premier about the situation.
“We need (Premier Scott Moe) and (Health Minister Paul Merriman) to listen,” Zambory said emotionally. “I have met with both of those gentlemen. … They know exactly what we need as registered nurses. I’ve told them that we need to have a nursing resource team.
"We need to talk about short-term and long-term solutions. We need to bring the union, the educators, and the regulators to the table. We need to work immediately on retention and recruitment. We need to talk about financial retention bonuses so that people might consider staying. We need to talk about what we are going to do to retain our new grads.”
Zambory referenced Jacelyn Wingerter, a 22-year-old nurse in her first year on the job who has been featured in national news. Wingerter worked 290 hours in May, forcing herself to work 146 hours of overtime to try and help her over-stressed co-workers. Despite her age, she feels burned out, hopeless, and overwhelmed.
“Everybody that I speak to is working a minimum of three hours overtime at the end of their shift," Zambory said, "and they’re leaving that shift and having panic attacks when they get home, crying uncontrollably because they know they’ve left people in that waiting room who are dangerously close to a catastrophic event.”
Zambory said that she has proposed strategies as conditions deteriorate. She has approached the SHA and the provincial government with solutions to accompany her warnings. Unilateral decisions continue to be made without consultation with the workers affected by those decisions.
“We cannot keep doing this … we need to come up with strategies where people are actually listened to, where we look again at having directors of care right on the floor who are RNs, nurse managers who are RNs, and all the way up the chain, so people feel like they have support, that somebody cares what they think and what they feel.”
People are going to start dying in hospital hallways, on the floors of emergency departments, and in their homes because ambulances can't get to them, Zambory predicted. Already, overworked ER staff must clear space on waiting room floors to code patients. Code is hospital slang for a patient who is potentially dying and cannot be moved, forcing the team to treat them wherever it is they have collapsed.
“This is unprecedented. … It’s catastrophic,” Zambory said. “Veterans with over 15 years of experience are telling us they’ve never experienced anything like this. And these are people who have worked in the emergency departments their entire career.
“These are smart people who know when we are in a disaster, and it is here.”
Response from the Ministry of Health
(Editorial note: The Saskatchewan Ministry of Health issued the following statement in response to a request for comment. It has been reprinted in full below.)
"Human health resource challenges are occurring in hospitals and emergency departments across Canada as well as globally. The Government of Saskatchewan has a four-point plan to recruit, train, incentivize and retain more health care workers. This plan will better position our health care teams for success in the short and long term, to ensure the supply of health care workers is adequate to address service backlogs caused by the pandemic, meet future demands, and satisfy requirements related to capital expansion projects across the province.
"Work on this plan is already underway including the creation of the Saskatchewan Healthcare Recruitment Agency and expansions to physician residency and nurse training seats. Additional details on this plan, including new initiatives and investments, will be announced in the coming weeks.
"Tertiary acute care sites in Saskatoon, and to a lesser extent Regina, are experiencing overcapacity within our inpatient units, resulting in challenges to provide tertiary emergency care. The SHA is responding with a province-wide approach to support safe emergency room care and EMS coverage levels across the province to level load patient demand across our provincial capacity to safe care for all our patients. This approach includes:
- Working collaboratively with physician and operational leaders to consider regional centres as close to a patient’s home as possible for care, if they can have their needs met there. This will help reserve tertiary utilization for those patients who cannot have their needs met anywhere else.
- To level load and risk manage our collective demand and capacity, stable medicine patients whose clinical needs make it safe to delay transfer will be requested to transfer when receiving hospital EDs have more capacity. Unstable patient transfers will continue in a timely way as per current practice.
- Regional centres may receive an increased demand for services – inpatient and diagnostic services, as patients transferring into tertiary centres may have to wait overnight in the sending hospitals, prior to transfer.
"Ministers Merriman and Hindley have met with unions and visited health facilities throughout the province this summer, speaking with administrators and front-line providers throughout the facilities about programs and services offered."