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Labour + Industry

Nurses Are in Crisis, and Banging Pots Isn’t Going to Fix It

The pandemic has exposed and worsened the flaws in our sector. Here’s how to make things better.

Michelle Danda 9 Jun 2021 | TheTyee.ca

Michelle C. Danda is a registered nurse who works in adolescent mental health and health informatics.

The fight against COVID-19 has shone light on many gaps in the health care and social welfare systems, including the urgent need for more support for nurses.

The more than 50,000 nurses in B.C. are front and centre in this fight, which has highlighted the long-term erosion of supports that let nurses do their job safely and effectively.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. More than 20 years ago, nurses were fighting the provincial government over workloads and pay. For decades, public trust in nurses and their contributions has been high, while funding cuts created unsafe workplaces and inadequate training, and nurses were prevented from delivering services using the full scope of their training and skills.

A year ago, amidst lockdowns and bombardments of new information about illness and death rates, the public was unsure and afraid of what the future would hold. The health of the nation was in flux. People banged pots and made noise out of gratitude to health-care workers. About 440,000 of those workers across Canada were nurses — registered nurses, registered psychiatric nurses and licensed practical nurses.

But we need more than banging pots. Nurses need the public to listen to their recommendations, research and reports about health-care issues.

In the continuous scroll of social media, we see public support for nurses, but frequently a lack of understanding of what nurses actually do. It’s heartwarming to know that there’s a public perception of nurses as the metaphorical heart of the health-care system, but nurses are also its head, arms, legs and backbone. The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the lack of understanding the public has about the nurse’s role.

The Canadian health-care system is composed of many different staff, professionals and non-professionals, government-regulated and not. Each person is a necessary piece of the structure that creates a functioning system.

Nurses are a large part of this structure. They’re plentiful in direct patient care, but are also clinical leaders, managers, directors, CEOs, educators and researchers within the health-care system. Nurses carry out doctor’s orders but, depending on the setting, level of education and scope of their role, nurses also make the orders, carry them out and lead care.

Recently, ICUs and acute care have been overwhelmed with COVID-19 and opiate overdose crisis patients. Those same ICUs and emergency departments provide care to all. If a bus crashes or a building burns, the people needing care use the same hospitals that are treating those with COVID-19.

And the majority of clinicians in these settings are nurses. Nurses train for crisis, as it’s not unusual for patients to become critically ill in a hospital or urgent care setting.

But COVID-19 has rapidly increased the number of people who are becoming critically ill, and the number of nurses who needed to quickly pivot to new specialty areas.

The majority of B.C. nurses are under 50, meaning they have not lived through widespread health crises like AIDS in the 1980s. Even before the COVID-19 and opiate overdose crisis, nurses were burning out and leaving the profession.

Today’s new graduate nurses are being welcomed into the profession with a very different experience. The moral distress and exposure to an unprecedented health crisis right from their student practicums into the beginning of their careers is compounded by stressors like short staffing, resource limitations and death and sickness in greater magnitude than anything experienced in recent years.

Collectively, nurses are feeling this. Nurse resiliency is something that requires investment, policy support and resource allocation to ensure that nurses are retained through this crisis.

Nurses are at the frontline. Canada needs them there, in acute settings, in the community and in long-term care, because nurses are the health-care clinicians providing 24-7 care, saving lives, educating the public, training other nurses and leading research.

Public thanks and support mean a lot, and they keep nurses going. But nurses need more than applause for their knowledge, compassion and care. Young nurses, experienced nurses, frontline nurses and nurse leaders must see action that demonstrates understanding of their value in all their roles throughout the health-care system.

The public must demand nurses be given the ability to work to their full scope of practice, using all their skills and knowledge without unnecessary restrictions on their role. Nurses also need the opportunity to lead change toward a sustainable system.

The public should press provincial health organizations and the B.C. government to provide the financial resources to ensure that new nurses have adequate mentorship and training to help build their resiliency during these crises and stay in the career that they worked so hard to enter. Funding is also needed to support nurses in developing roles in advanced practice, research, education and academia to ensure that the nurses of tomorrow have leaders and mentors to educate and support them.

Nurses’ experience, knowledge, kindness and empathy come from education, training and research that are integral to the sustainability, progression and innovation of health care. Investing in nurses should be an economic priority.  [Tyee]

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