Barb Cape says she wants to be frank about the limitations in recruiting health care workers from the Philippines.
“I think it is important for us to recognize that you know, the Philippines has just gone through a natural disaster. So recruiting from the Philippines during a natural disaster seems, you know, not a great idea,” the SEIU-West president told CTV News.
In December, a powerful typhoon left at least 375 dead and 50 others missing, mostly the county’s central region, according to officials. At its strongest, the typhoon packed sustained winds of 195 kilometres per hour and gusts of up to 270 km/h. More than 700,000 people were lashed by the typhoon in central island provinces, including more than 400,000 who had to be moved to emergency shelters.
Cape’s comment came in response to the Ministry of Health’s announcement that the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) hopes to recruit at least 150 and as many as 300 international health care workers, with a focus on workers from the Philippines. The recruitment is to focus on hard-to-recruit staff including registered nurses and licensed practical nurses, medical laboratory technologists and continuing care assistants.
An SHA spokesperson said leadership was unavailable for an interview due to the current demands of the COVID-19 pandemic. The SHA has previously said that as of December, there are 647 registered nurse or registered psychiatric nurse vacancies and 155 licensed practical nurse openings.
“The SHA, the Ministry of Health and people who are expecting us to be able to move mountains with an additional 150 people,” Cape said.
“There are health systems all across the United States, there are health authorities all across Canada, who are going to the exact same place we are – to the Philippines. There are governments all across the globe who are going to the Philippines, to bring healthcare workers into their systems. And it’s a great opportunity or for Philippine health care workers. But they need health care workers right now during this natural disaster.”
Cape also questioned what makes Saskatchewan an attractive place for health care workers given “the problems that our system currently has, and really the wide-open lack of enforcement on the public health orders during our pandemic.”
Cape said there are 1,400 health care vacancies across the province, with other hard-to-recruit positions including medical radiation technologists, vital techs, EMTs and cooks.
“I think we need to be serious about recruitment. But we also need to be serious about retaining the people we currently have.”
She said the healthcare sector is seeing an all-time high in retirements; people are becoming burnt out and exhausted with the health authority relying on overtime to fill gaps in staffing.
“We are seeing people who are just giving up throwing up their hands and saying, ‘You know what, I’ve had enough, I’m either going to go casual, or I’m leaving the system altogether.’ And that’s massive because these are people who have years of service they have they have the knowledge and the skills and experience in actually putting that education into practice,” she said.
Tracy Zambory, president of the Saskatchewan Nurses Union, said the staffing situation for nurses is close to a crisis.
There have been some weekends where 200 shifts were vacant among Saskatoon’s three hospital emergency rooms, she said.
“It could be that people have been out because they’re burnt out, they’re exhausted, they cannot take it anymore, because the emergency room is where everyone enters into the healthcare system. In the midst of the fourth wave, it was almost unbearable to work there. The pressure was so high, there was no listening to the healthcare professionals by the leadership of this province. Any sort of measure that was suggested or called for wasn’t listened to.
“So the pressure in the health care, in the emergency rooms, in the intensive care units just kept coming and coming and coming with no break. People can only sustain that kind of stress for so long. And they have to step away to try to keep their mental health intact.”
She said a recent survey found one in four registered nurses are suffering from a mental health crisis and one in five are eligible for retirement.
“They are feeling burnt out. And they are looking to perhaps switch professions,” she said.
She said rural and remote recruitment and retention has long been a problem, but those positions used to have financial incentives; those have been cut for some time, she said. Younger people also often see Regina and Saskatoon as their communities, she said.
In addition, young, new grads were often put in charge of rural ERs which was overwhelming without the support they got in larger urban centres, she said.
“Being in charge, sometimes in communities without a doctor, was very stressful for new grads. So, the support system for new grads to practice safely, and flourish with senior nurses was a major barrier.”
Both union leaders said foreign workers must be properly supported to adapt to the local culture and healthcare system.
They also touted the potential of recruiting from Indigenous communities.
With Associated Press files