Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre (RVH) appears to be bucking a trend which is seeing hospitals across the province work through a critical shortage of nursing staff.
While the Barrie hospital is in the midst of a three-day virtual nursing career drive for about 40 vacancies, RVH officials say its vacancy numbers are no worse than they were prior to the pandemic.
In fact, RVH vice-president of facilities and chief human resources officer Darrell Sewell says that number was typically closer to 50 to 60 prior to the pandemic.
Aggressive recruiting continued during the pandemic, particularly given the additional need created by the 70-bed pandemic response unit, or field hospital, erected in its parking lot meant to accommodate increased demands in the region arising as a result of the pandemic.
“In the last 18 months, we hired 500 nurses or positions and we had 300 exit, so we had a net increase of 200,” Sewell told BarrieToday. “RVH has been quite successful in attracting talent to the organization.”
RVH officials have said that it anticipates an annual 10 per cent turnover in staff. The hospital currently employs 3,342 staff and another 471 doctors, dentists and midwives as credentialed staff. There are also 614 volunteers, which haven’t been on site during the pandemic.
Among those who have left are employees who have retired, which Sewell says has increased slightly during the pandemic.
Typically, the Barrie hospital experiences around 18 retirements every quarter. That has increased to about 21 in recent quarters.
Sewell believes that’s natural attrition related to the baby-boom generation aging out of the workforce.
Many other hospitals across the province and countrywide are struggling with severe staff shortages in a very competitive job market, resulting in bed closures.
“The staffing crisis is being experienced in every single hospital in the province,” said Services Employees International Union Healthcare (SEIU) president Sharleen Stewart. “I have never seen vacancies, unfilled vacancies like they’re experiencing now.
“We had a staffing crisis before the pandemic, now it is... critical," she added.
The SEIU represents registered practical nurses (RPNs) and personal support workers (PSWs) at the Barrie hospital while the Ontario Nurses Association (ONA), which did not provide comment for this article, represents registered nurses (RNs).
Both are currently at the start of two weeks of negotiations with Ontario hospitals.
While some hospitals have relied on outside agencies to recruit staff and have even used hiring bonuses, officials at RVH indicated it has not used agency nurses in decades and does not offer hiring bonuses.
An external nursing agency included Barrie in its listings for nurses in other hospitals. RVH officials say the agency was asked to remove the reference to Barrie, because they felt it to be misleading.
RVH’s current nursing career drive is expected to further reduce its vacancies.
In addition to its recruitment efforts, Sewell says there are also initiatives to grow from within. So nurses already working at the Barrie hospital will be encouraged to become specialists so that they can work in the intensive care, emergency or operating departments — areas where the supply in the marketplace is very limited.
RVH also implemented an “extern” program which currently allows 60 health-care students in their final year, mostly nursing but also paramedics and respiratory technologists, to work in the hospital in backup and support roles, with the prospect of filling future vacancies at the completion of their studies.
As to the impact of the pandemic and accompanying pressures, Sewell says there have been no bed closures.
There was also no noticeable impact on short-term leave during the first year, but that has started to increase in recent months.
“We’re now in the 19th month of the pandemic… and it’s taking a toll on everybody, not just health-care workers,” he said. “I’m not surprised that in the 19th month of a pandemic that perhaps our short-term disability numbers, especially those one- to three-day absences are going up a bit.”
In recent years, there has been a trend toward fewer leaves related to physical illness and more related to mental health issues.
Sewell says RVH has been trying to support its staff through peer-to-peer support, employee and family assistance services, a wellness team as well as a caring committee to examine support approaches through the pandemic.
“In the 19th month of a pandemic we’re seeing some folks really sort of finding it more difficult to be as fully engaged as they were perhaps pre-pandemic,” Sewell said.