Following a B.C. Auditor General report chastising Northern Health for its nurse recruitment and retention efforts, the head of the authority's human resource department said its efforts are on the right track.
The report, released late last week, found that, as of April 2017, Northern Health was short 121 registered nurses or 15% of its rural and remote workforce. More than a quarter of rural and remote Nurse Practitioner positions were also vacant. The report also highlighted a lack of tracking in performance of recruitment methods used by the health authority in its attempts to fill the staffing shortfalls in the region.
"Northern Health's performance monitoring of its recruitment, hiring and retention functions was minimal and, as a result, it was not able to show that its efforts in these areas had a positive impact on its results," the report said.
David Williams, vice president of human resources, said the Auditor General's recommendations were valid. But he said the report also highlighted some of the aspects of the authority's recruiting methods that are working.
"The report itself talks about that we've implemented the majority of the good practices that they've identified," Williams said.
The report found that, while the health authority has implemented or partly implemented the majority of the identified good practices for recruitment and retention, it has not established an overall strategy to guide these efforts, nor has it established goals and performance measures.
"From a retention perspective, over the past five years, we've improved by 38 per cent the retaining of nurses. However, what they're saying is, that doesn't tie to a specific retention strategy that you have," Williams said.
The report states that nurse exits from Northern Health have decreased since 2012 but that "there are no clear trends in other key retention metrics, such as average active length of service, average departure length of service (the average length of service of all RNs and NPs who departed the organization in that fiscal year) and departure reasons for RNs."
The report also identified an increase in cost due to overtime hours and the use of agency nurses as a result of staff shortages. Between 2012 and 2016, the overtime hours increased by 30%. The use of outside agency nurses has also been costly; the workload equivalent of 16 nurses were filled by agency nurses in 2016.
Christine Sorensen, acting president of the B.C. Nurses' Union said the increase in overtime has also resulted in increasing rates of burnout amongst nurses in the north.
"The workload is extremely heavy. Nurses are burning out. They're exhausted. We're seeing increased rates of injury, nurses going off on long-term disability, nurses exposed to violence - because patients get frustrated because they're not available to get the care they need," Sorensen said.
Sorensen said she is seeing an increase in nurses retiring earlier from the profession. Fewer remain within the profession on a part-time basis later in their careers.
"I think there is a factor that drives nurses to retire and not return or not continue to provide service," she said.
The BCNU has recently begun working with Northern Health on efforts to recruit more nurses to northern communities. The union has partially funded, along with Northern Health, a northern incentive program, in which nurses who take difficult-to-fill positions in remote or rural communities receive $15,000 in their first year and $2,000 towards professional development in years two through five. The nurse must commit to remaining in their community for at least three years. The union, along with Northern Health, also made a joint submission to the Ministry of Health for the creation of a travelling nurse pool, which would allow for nurses based in a centre like Prince George to travel out to more rural or remote communities.
Sorensen said she felt the long-term planning, including the recruitment efforts, of Northern Health are sound. But she also said that the health authority could do more in the short term to support nurses, which might help retain these professionals in the region.
"It's those immediate supports that the nurses need now around ensuring that they are not occupied with their time doing non-nursing duties and are focusing on nursing tasks. It's the immediate support to ensure that nurses feel safe in their workplace by providing appropriate security in all of these places and the appropriate communication tools if they're working alone," she said.