Nunavut struggles to retain nurses in territory’s three regions
“We want a stable nurse force," says health minister
Nunavut’s health care centres face a severe shortage of permanent, full-time nurses — and some regions are feeling it more than others, MLAs heard Feb. 29 during their budget review at the Nunavut legislature in Iqaluit.
Territorial health department statistics show the vacancy rate for permanent nursing positions is 87 per cent in Nunavut’s Kitikmeot region, where communities rely largely on southern agencies to supply temporary nursing staff.
The vacancy rate is lower in the Baffin region, but still high at 58 per cent, and slightly lower in the Kivalliq, at 42 per cent.
Iqaluit fares best, with a 34 per cent vacancy rate.
Gjoa Haven MLA Tony Akoak says of four nursing positions in his home community, only one is a permanent position.
Although the other nurses are equally skilled, they don’t know the files of local patients well enough and they tend to stay only a month at a time, he said.
“Do you want to keep nurses in the community as opposed to only four weeks at a time?” Akoak asked Nunavut’s health minister, Paul Okalik, Feb. 29 during the committee of the whole review of the health department’s budget.
“It’s obvious that we need to work on it more,” Okalik said in response.
In an interview with Nunatsiaq News, Okalik said the Government of Nunavut believes permanent nursing jobs would translate into better care for the territory.
“We want a stable nurse force,” Okalik said. “We’re trying to train our own. We’ve done various recruitment drives to encourage indeterminate nursing in our own territory.”
When there’s a vacant nursing position that remains unfilled, however, the GN will opt to hire agency nurses to fill it, he said.
But Okalik isn’t sure why the Kitikmeot region has more trouble retaining permanent nurses. “That’s one area we’re looking at,” he said.
Akoak worries that agency nurses are provided with better benefits and flexibility than their GN-hired counterparts, which makes those temporary positions more attractive.
He said the GN should provide more incentive, like better housing and benefits, to bring more permanent, long-term nurses to the communities in his region.
“We do have various incentives programs in place for our nurses,” Okalik said.
But he said a large part of the solution lies in Nunavut’s communities, where his department is encouraging more Inuit residents to study nursing.
“I want to see more Inuit students coming from the Kitikmeot so we can fill those voids with local residents,” Okalik said.
“And it’s improving. We have 14 beneficiaries who are taking the foundation year nursing program, so that’s encouraging.”
Nunavut Arctic College offers a foundation, or pre-nursing, program as well as a bachelor of science in Arctic nursing.
“It’s a well-paying job… and it’s always in demand,” Okalik said.