Following a rally that saw hundreds of nurses from across the province gather in Vancouver, the BC Nurses Union (BCNU) is calling on the provincial government to take urgent action to address B.C’s worsening nurse shortage. Nurses at the rally warned that nurses are continuing to leave the profession at high rates, leading to a staffing crisis that continues to threaten the state of B.C healthcare.

The BCNU said in a press release that a severe staffing shortage, along with increased patient care needs,  have resulted in untenable conditions in emergency departments across the province, citing recent calls for action by healthcare professionals at Surrey Memorial Hospital and the University Hospital of Northern BC in Prince George as examples.

“The shortage has reached such dire levels that we regularly see temporary closures of emergency rooms in communities around BC,” said BCNU President Aman Grewal.

The Nicola Valley Hospital’s ER has been closed ten times in 2023, with the diversions increasing in frequency since they became common last year. The closures lead to a series of protests, since the start of which no closures have occurred, including demonstrations of hundreds of people at the hospital’s green space and Central Park and the creation of an online petition with more than 8000 signatures. Nursing shortages continue to be an issue at the Nicola Valley Hospital, and hospitals across the province.

Grewal noted overwhelmingly cite high workloads and insufficient staffing levels as the top reasons nurses in B.C. consider leaving the profession. She added that nurses are experiencing ‘unheard of’ levels of moral distress from witnessing the shortages’ ongoing and negative impact on patient care. 

“The new normal for a working nurse is a 16-to-18-hour shift without a break and no support, and that’s leading to high levels of burnout and exhaustion,” added Grewal. “We are seeing the devastating impacts on working nurses now who are burning out as they try to carry the system on their backs.”

A new agreement reached in April between the Nurses’ Bargaining Association and the province to implement minimum nurse-to-patient ratios across B.C’s healthcare settings has the promise to improve the staffing and practice conditions needed to keep nurses in the job, according to Grewal. 

She added that in the U.S. state of California and in Australia, where ratios have been mandated, a noticeable improvement in the quality of patient care has been observed, along with decreased nurse fatigue and increased recruitment and retention.

“Safe staffing saves lives,” noted Grewal. “A staffing model that includes nurse-patient ratios, when properly implemented, will help us retain and recruit the nurses we so desperately need.” 

Recent numbers from Statistics Canada show there are currently 5,010 nurse vacancies in the province. By 2031, nearly 27,000 nurses will be needed to keep up with the province’s growing population and healthcare demands.