Ontario Premier Doug Ford broke his silence Wednesday on the health care crisis engulfing the province, saying the government will be issuing a directive to speed up the accreditation of international nurses as a way of addressing shortages of medical staff.
At a news conference in Stratford, Ont. on Wednesday, Mr. Ford said the directive to the College of Ontario Nurses, the profession’s governing body in the province, would lead to a “much faster, rapid process” for registering international nurses, who have foreign training but require Canadian credentials before they can practice here.
The province’s Ministry of Health provided no further details about the directive when asked on Wednesday. Ontario Health Minister Sylvia Jones didn’t mention the plan during a Tuesday interview with The Globe and Mail about the staffing crisis.
The problems plaguing the province’s health care system have become increasingly urgent in recent weeks, with several reported instances of people in pain waiting many hours, or even days, to be seen in emergency rooms or be admitted to hospitals.
About 25 hospitals had to close parts of their operations over the long weekend, including emergency rooms, because of staff shortages. Toronto General Hospital issued a “critical care bed alert” Tuesday evening as its three intensive-care units either hit full capacity or lacked enough staff to keep all their beds open.
Mr. Ford had not spoken to media about the crisis since hospitals began to show signs of acute strain.
“We’re in need of more nurses, as many as we can get,” he said on Wednesday. “We’re throwing everything and the kitchen sink at this.”
Despite the increasing challenges, Mr. Ford seemed to say that most patients continue to receive adequate care.
“I want to be clear, Ontarians continue to have access to the care they need when they need it,” Mr. Ford said.
Mr. Ford referenced his government’s past efforts to increase hospital capacity and nursing levels. He said Ontario had added 10,500 health care workers since the start of the pandemic, including 7,000 nurses and 2,400 personal support workers.
College of Nurses of Ontario spokesperson Kristi Green said in a statement that the regulatory body will be meeting with the government in the coming days to discuss recruitment efforts.
Ms. Green said the college has already registered a record 3,967 internationally educated nurses in the first six months of the year – a 132-per-cent increase from the same time period in 2021 – and registered an annual record number of nurses overall.
But nursing leaders say hiring alone is not the solution. Doris Grinspun, chief executive of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, which represents nurses in the province, said medical staff are being asked to take on bigger workloads than in the past, and are facing high levels of burnout. New strategies are needed to improve their day-to-day conditions, she said, so those workers don’t decide to leave the profession.
Dr. Grinspun said the government’s first step should be to repeal Bill 124, introduced in 2019, which caps wage increases for nurses and other public sector workers at one per cent annually for a three-year contract term. Lifting the cap, she said, could help retain nurses already in the system and would have a faster impact than hiring new ones.
When asked if he would repeal the legislation, Mr. Ford noted that his government had given nurses a one-time $5,000 “retention bonus” this year. He said this had provided nurses with the largest pay raise in Canada.
While the provincial government searches for a solution, the crisis persists. An “urgent practice alert” went into effect at Toronto’s SickKids Hospital on Tuesday as a result of staffing shortages. In a statement, SickKids spokesperson Sarah Warr said members of the hospital’s critical care response team may be called in to support direct patient care in the pediatric intensive-care unit on a case-by-case basis while the alert is in place.
The response team is a service at the hospital that can be contacted by health care providers when a patient shows signs of requiring intensive care, Ms. Warr said. Direct impacts to patients aren’t expected during the alert, but response times for requests to the critical care response team may increase slightly if staff are called upon to work in the intensive-care unit, she added.
In his remarks on Wednesday, Mr. Ford repeatedly referenced May wait-time statistics from Ontario Health. According to those numbers, 89 per cent of high-urgency emergency room patients not admitted to hospital finished their visits within the target time of eight hours. But the same data reported an average wait time of 2.1 hours for emergency room patients to be assessed by doctors, the longest such wait within the previous year.
Patients needing to be admitted to hospitals in May waited an average of 20.1 hours in emergency rooms, which was the longest wait in any month in the past 14 years, except for January, at the peak of the COVID-19 Omicron wave. Only 24 per cent of patients were admitted to hospital from emergency rooms within the target time of eight hours. More recent wait time data hasn’t been publicly released by Ontario Health.
Mr. Ford noted that Ontario’s health care system is not alone in its plight. He reiterated an earlier call to the federal government to increase its share of health care spending from 22 per cent to 35 per cent of total costs.
Also on Wednesday, health care advocates gathered outside Queen’s Park, where they called on the province to provide health care access to uninsured patients permanently.
At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the provincial government put in place a temporary policy, under which it waived the three-month waiting period for OHIP coverage and created a system for paying back physicians who served uninsured patients. The policy remains in place, and the government has not said when it will end.
An open letter signed by over 1,000 members of the health care community and 200 organizations in Ontario calls on the government to make the measures permanent.
Shazeen Suleman, a pediatrician at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto and a member of the advocacy organization Healthcare For All, said the expiration of the COVID-19 directive would mean more pressure on emergency rooms, because patients without access to OHIP would not be able to see primary care doctors, who could treat conditions before they progressed to critical stages.
“We hear every day about how the system is at a breaking point, and I worry that if we go back in time, and we make this program non-permanent, that we’re going to see catastrophic consequences,” Dr. Suleman said.
With a report from Jake Kivanc
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