Niagara region needs close to 2,000 more health care workers and over 200 more hospital beds: Report

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Published August 11, 2023 at 11:27 am

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A new report suggests that patient care will become more strained in Niagara hospitals unless the regional health care system receives a significant boost in staffing and hospital beds. 

The Hospital Crisis: No Capacity, No Plan, No End, released by CUPE’s Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU), suggests that hospitals across the province must increase staffing and capacity by 22 per cent each to meet patient needs–a target it says the provincial government is falling short of. 

The report says Niagara’s health care system needs to add 1,739 additional staff and 223 more beds over the next four years. The union says the province is not on track to meet those targets, stating that staffing and capacity across Ontario will grow by less than one per cent a year over the next four years.

“We are very concerned about the growing crisis in our public hospitals, which is deeply harmful for both workers and patients. Unfortunately, the government’s plan is completely inadequate to meet the needs of a growing and aging population,” said Michael Hurley, the president of OCHU/CUPE, in a statement.

“At this rate, we are heading towards a much deeper crisis.”

The union represents 40,000 hospital workers across the province. 

According to the report, Stats Canada data indicate that hospital staffing levels have only increased by 0.4 per cent since 2020. Staffing and bed shortages in Ontario hospitals were making headlines before the pandemic struck in 2020, with patients in busy hospitals reporting waiting hours–and even days–on stretchers in hallways. 

Staff shortages have been reported frequently over the past two years, with health-care workers often citing heavy workloads and frozen wages as reasons for leaving the profession. The staff shortage, which is impacting hospitals across the province, has led to more than 145 emergency room closures since 2022. 

Urgent care centres in Fort Erie and Port Colborne have also faced rolling closures.

Some progress has been made on wages. 

Last month, the Ontario Nurses’ Association (ONA) announced that it received a significant 11 per cent wage increase (delivered over two years) for its more than 65,000 hospital-sector registered nurses and health-care professionals.

The news came after the provincial government passed Bill 124, legislation that limited wage increases for nurses and other public sector workers to a maximum of one per cent for three years.

Earlier this year, the bill was declared unconstitutional by an Ontario court and the government appealed the ruling. 

The arbitrator who set a new contract for nurses says there are 9,000 registered nurse vacancies, while the CUPE/OCHU report says vacancy rates in health care have increased by about 300 per cent since 2015. 

Stats Canada data indicate hospital staffing levels need to increase 5.2 per cent annually to meet the needs of the province’s residents. 

The government has previously pledged to do more to attract and retain health-care workers.

In June, Ontario Health Minister Sylvia Jones announced that the province is starting three programs aimed at bolstering staffing in the health-care sector.

A $40-million fund to encourage health-care providers to better connect patients to services, a program to allow internationally trained physicians to work more quickly, and a nursing mentor program were all previously announced but are now launching.

The Models of Care Innovation Fund will give funding to hospitals, family health teams and other health organizations for projects to allow faster access to care and boost health-care worker capacity, such as a staffing pool between hospitals and virtual peer support for ER doctors in rural areas.

A Clinical Scholar Program will pair an experienced front-line nurse as a mentor with newly graduated or internationally trained nurses, which Jones says will both help those nurses and will help retain experienced nurses. The province also announced a “practice ready” program for internationally trained physicians removes barriers for them and will see 50 new doctors working in Ontario by 2024. 

That said, CUPE says current policies are not enough to meet the needs of Ontario’s patients.

“The ongoing retention and recruitment challenges will only worsen if the government fails to address working conditions and compensation,” Hurley said. 

“We need to lure back the thousands of staff who have left the sector, and train tens of thousands more nurses, PSWs and other health care workers to rebuild our hospital system.”

According to the report, Ontario has 38 per cent less inpatient staffing in hospitals compared to the Canadian average. 

CUPE says the government’s plan to grow capacity by 3,000 beds over the next 10 years would achieve only a 0.79 per cent annual increase when annual population growth of 1.5 per cent is projected over the next 10 years.

Ontario is also grappling with an aging population that will need more health care services as they age. 

“Ontarians trying to access hospital care have suffered immensely in the past three years as

evidenced by unprecedented ER closures, cancelled surgeries, and a peak in hallway healthcare. It’s clear that this government has no real plan to provide people the quality of care they need,” Hurley said in a statement.

With files from The Canadian Press

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