Cure needed
Regional health centres threatened by staff losses

Kerry McCluskey
Northern News Services

Iqaluit (Aug 07/00) - It's frightening. That's how Quinn Taggart described the state of health-care in Nunavut.

This comes after Taggart, Senior administrative Officer in Kugaaruk (Pelly Bay), finished a conference call in late July with health officials, mayors and senior administrators from the Kitikmeot.

He hung up uneasy about the drastic shortage of health-care providers in the region's five hamlets - Cambridge Bay, Kugluktuk, Kugaaruk, Gjoa Haven, and Taloyoak.

"It scared the hell out of me," said Taggart. "It's not like we can run down the street to the hospital. The front-line of health-care in the community falls to the health centre."

Nursing shortages have been getting worse in Nunavut for the last three years. In recent weeks, the department of health has had to shift staff from the Baffin region just to keep centres in the regions open.

"We have to be prepared for this to get worse before it gets any better," Taggart said.

What frightened him the most about last week's conference call was a request from the department of health for a list of Pelly Bay people whose First Aid training was up to date.

"It started me thinking about why they were asking for this. I started to get a little concerned," he said.

"We're in trouble if they're thinking about relying on these people to substitute for nursing professionals. They'll have a real problem." Taggart's own First Aid certification has lapsed.

Checking the resources

Civilians would not be called upon to act as health-care providers, according to Casey Adlem, the department's acting executive director for Kitikmeot. He said the request had more to do with being prepared for emergencies.

"I don't think we're ever planning on getting to the point where we need to call upon (these people)," said Adlem, from Cambridge Bay. "We need to know what resources are out there, but we're not planning on closing any centres."

Adlem said the department needed to find out which residents had the skills to assist when staff numbers were low.

"When it comes down to not having as many staff, we have a responsibility to find out what resources are in each community," she said.

Capital hit, too

The health-care situation is equally bad in Iqaluit where the number of hospital beds has dropped from more than 30 to 10 since 1998. It's a critical situation," said Health Minister Ed Picco.

"That's why we had to close the beds -- because we weren't able to look after those patients. That means we have to send more people south...and that increases our costs."

Noting that Baffin Regional Hospital is running at about 45 per cent capacity, Picco blamed nursing shortages across the country for making nurse recruitment extremely competitive.

To ease the situation, the minister set up a recruitment and retention committee and has already received a set of 22 recommendations for improvement, which he said he plans to implement immediately. He declined to reveal exactly what the recommendations were.

He called the current shortage of nurses the worst to ever hit Nunavut and invited federal Health Minister Allan Rock to view first-hand problems plaguing the health-care system.

"We have not closed any centres," Picco said. "That's the last resort...but it's pretty close to that. If I lost an extra staff person in one of the communities, I would have to do that."