Hospital crowded, understaffed, nurses say

The B.C. Nurses' Union said patient overcrowding at Prince George's hospital has reached appalling levels.

"It was very distressing," said Christine Sorensen of her visit to the University Hospital of Northern B.C last week.

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The union vice president said she was on a routine visit in Prince George with long term care workers, when she heard reports that the hospital was 52 patients over capacity.

Sorensen made her way to the hospital and characterized the space as overflowing, highlighting one patient who had spent seven days in the hallway.

The union has been meeting regularly with Northern Health, she said, but hasn't seen key issues addressed, including staffing levels, especially in residential and community facilities and nurse recruiting and retention. Congestion is made worse when there aren't enough nurses, she said.

"We're frustrated by the health authority's inaction or slow action to respond to [the union's] requests and suggestions," Sorensen said.

Northern Health said it is very aware of the capacity issues, and has been public about its efforts to address them. In December, it presented a plan with 10 initiatives it would implement immediately.

In the previous six months, Northern Health noted "an unprecedented level of demand for acute care services.

"There's a huge amount of work happening around all of these capacity issues and we continue to have it as our number one focus," said Michael McMillan, chief operating officer for the northern interior.

"We know we have hallway patients and I feel sick. I apologize to all the people who are having to be cared for in space that is not optimal but we have to preserve capacity in emergency department."

McMillan pointed to increasing mental health resources in the community to lighten demands on the hospital, work to decrease the length of patient stays and increase home support.

He couldn't say the problem has improved since December, but noted that the hospital is in the midst of its busy season for flu, respiratory problems and trauma.

"It's not getting worse. We're in the middle of what's our highest use," said McMillan, adding many of the initiatives will ramp up in mid-February and in the first week of March, when 26 beds are scheduled to open.

Sorensen she's hearing from staff that it's an ambitious time frame.

The two are of the opposite opinion on the status staffing levels.

"We take patient safety very seriously and we're committed to providing appropriate staffing levels," said McMillan, adding he disagreed with Sorensen's assertion the hospital is understaffed.

Sorensen agreed Northern Health has enough baseline staff by the current definitions but that those requirements are flawed.

"The problem is, we believe fundamentally that the baseline staffing needs are not appropriate. They're too low to meet the patient care needs, both in the community, in long term residential care, and in acute care."

She also said she's hearing reports from nurses that Northern Health isn't calling in extra staff, as is required under the union's collective agreement.

"Our nurses are currently documenting the lack of replacement that's duly owed to them, that they need to provide the nursing care," said Sorensen, adding there aren't enough nurses in the north.

But McMillan said change should come.

"I think it's important for people to know that there is actually work happening. We have very aggressive timelines and I think it's absolutely going to make a difference."

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