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ICU will not re-open as scheduled

Chris Puglia
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Aug 14/02) - Stanton Territorial Hospital's intensive care unit, which was scheduled to re-open Sept. 3, will now remain closed indefinitely.

The ICU, which closed June 7, was to re-open this fall when a shortage in staff was expected to be addressed.

Donna Zaozirny, operations manager for the hospital, says currently the hospital has four ICU nurses on staff, but nine are needed to re-open the unit.

As well there are other nursing positions in the hospital that need to be filled, and ICU nurses are hard to come by.

"It's a specialized type of service," said Zaozirny.

Nursing staff require additional training before they are qualified to work an ICU.

"We're a little short to start our training sessions," said Zaozirny.

Craig Lee, who was formerly an ICU nurse before the unit's closure, says the GNWT is making it difficult for the region to attract staff.

"The market is pretty competitive, provinces down South offer wages and packages that are in some cases better than up here," said Lee.

Shortage a national issue

The shortage, according, to Zaozirny reflects a national problem.

"There is a national shortage of nurses in the country, not a lot of applicants come in," she said. "It's not as if we are unique."

Since the ICU closed eight weeks ago, Zaozirny says only a small number of patients have needed to be transferred to a Southern hospital for intensive care treatment.

The continuing closure of the ICU has not impacted other hospital services, according to Zaozirny. Surgery and emergency services continue to operate normally.

"We still do emergency surgery, although there is some high-risk surgery that will not be done here," she said.

Four more nurses, hired from outside the NWT, are expected to begin working at Stanton between mid-September and mid-October.

In addition to the ICU there are number of vacancies in other units.

Zaozirny adds that recruitment continues for nursing and professional staff.

More to problem than nursing shortage

Suzette Montreuil, president of the Union of Northern Workers - Local 11, which is comprised of Stanton Territorial Hospital workers, says there is more to the problem in Yellowknife than a nationwide nursing shortage.

"There are challenges to recruitment in the North which are not being addressed, particularly at the government level," said Montreuil. "Wages and benefits are not keeping pace with changes in the South and in response to the shortage."

GNWT responds

Michael Miltenberger, minister of health, says he recognizes the challenges the North is experiencing in terms of recruiting nursing staff.

"Very clearly the recruitment rate tells me we have to look at what we are doing with compensation, benefits and training," said Miltenberger.

Currently the GNWT is working on an options paper that will discuss, among other things, nursing issues.

"It's an issue that has to be revisited," said Miltenberger. "The wages are presently competitive, it's the other issues, isolation, rent, cost of living," he said.

Miltenberger says the North is trying to compete in a very competitive market, and the supply of nurses is limited.

"We're competing against economic powerhouses, like Alberta, B.C. and the U.S.," said Miltenberger.

"Health care costs continue to rise, I have to go to the legislature and the cabinet and we have to recognize there are priorities."

Recognizing the nursing problem is one thing, finding the funds to address the issue is another.

"We're going to have to make some hard choices, because we don't have a lot of money, we're expecting a deficit this year," said Miltenberger.

The minister ensures that services to Northerners will not be diminished and they are hoping the ICU will open at Stanton Territorial Hospital before Christmas.