Interior Health has defended its staffing strategies at Elk Valley facilities after criticism from the BC Nurses’ Union (BCNU).
Last week, the BCNU blamed the July 10 closure of the Elkford Health Centre emergency department (ED) on “poor decision-making on recruitment and retention” and implored citizens and mayors of small communities to speak up.
The facility was closed for 24 hours due to unexpected limited nurse availability with residents requiring urgent care advised to travel to Sparwood or Fernie, between 25 and 50 minutes away.
Terri Domin, community health service administrator for the East Kootenay, said the Elkford ED had a highly dedicated team of nurses who are committed to their patients.
“We recognize any emergency department closure is concerning for local residents but it is important to note that, prior to the closure earlier this month, we have had no service interruptions in Elkford in almost two years and all our permanent positions are filled,” she said in a statement to The Free Press on July 27.
There have been no interruptions in recent years to services in Sparwood or Fernie related to staffing, according to Domin.
Last week, BCNU President Christine Sorensen argued proactive strategies are needed to recruit and retain nurses in rural communities as a global nursing shortage looms.
She claims the union has repeatedly reached out to management at Interior Health with proposed solutions to address staffing shortages, such as a rural float pool of nurses, but their suggestions have fallen on deaf ears.
Domin disputed that, saying the health authority meets regularly – approximately every three weeks – with BCNU representatives to discuss staffing challenges.
“We are always open to the BCNU’s ideas to address staffing issues and, where viable, we will implement those solutions,” she said.
The concept of float pools is one solution Interior Health is actively exploring, however, it has identified a number of challenges.
“The challenges we face in implementing regional nurse float pools come from our geography and the distance between our communities and facilities, our collective agreement requirements, as well as the affordability of this approach,” said Domin.
“The availability of housing, unpredictability of short notice staffing requirements and preventing unreasonable expectations on float pool employees are issues we are also currently reviewing.”
Contrary to BCNU’s statements that “people are not going to move to a community to complete casual work”, Domin believes many nurses prefer casual employment over permanent status.
She said casual nurse positions are an essential part of staffing requirements at Interior Health, which has recruitment and retention incentives to attract new employees to rural communities
“For communities like Elkford, that can include signing bonuses for permanent nurses who commit to staying in a rural community for three years and financial support with relocating to their new community,” said Domin.
“Provincial and federal student loan forgiveness programs are also available to nurses who choose to work in rural communities.”