BROUSSEAU: The Canadian health care system has collapsed

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We have never seen this level of widespread distress.

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Our healthcare system has collapsed and it no longer functions as it should. If no immediate and strong action from all levels of government is implemented now, we will see further erosion, further health impacts and a complete loss of faith in the health system.

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Nurses and other healthcare workers are burnt out, burnt out and quitting their jobs in droves. Patients are facing increasingly long wait times for procedures. Healthcare providers are discovering serious illnesses in patients who should have been diagnosed much earlier. Millions of people do not have access to a primary care provider. An alarming number of emergency rooms and other health service units have closed or drastically reduced their hours of operation.

These issues are not region specific. In Ontario, patients waited an average of 20.1 hours in the emergency department. In Alberta, there have been 19 interruptions to emergency and ambulatory services. In rural Newfoundland and Labrador, 12 emergency rooms have temporarily closed. Nunavut had to close or reduce hours at 11 of 25 community health centres. The list continues.

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The reason for this crisis is very clear: Canada is facing a serious health workforce crisis, including a devastating shortage of nurses.

For more than two years, nurses and health care providers have borne the enormous burden of the pandemic. Excessive workloads, understaffing and significant overtime lead to chronic burnout that has pushed nurses and healthcare workers beyond breaking point. This happens in all areas of nursing practice, including nursing leadership. Nurses take early retirement, move to part-time employment, or leave their job or profession altogether.

Nurses have the highest level of anxiety and depression of all healthcare workers, with 94% showing symptoms of burnout and 1 in 4 nurses planning to leave or change jobs. Many had to deal with 16 or even 24 hour shifts, couldn’t take a day off or a break and had their vacation canceled.

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These alarming trends are unprecedented. We have never seen this level of widespread distress. Nurses are the backbone of health care and retaining and caring for them is central to preventing the system from collapsing completely.

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Health personnel must first be strengthened in order to accelerate access to care and resolve this crisis. If we don’t keep the nursing workforce we have now, no other strategy will make a difference.

Unfortunately, it is now too late for quick fixes or band-aids. The cracks in the system are so deep that no measure will solve this crisis. We need a basket of solutions.

We need better working conditions and decent mental health care for health workers. We need a pan-Canadian health human resources action plan focused on data, retention and recruitment. We need to facilitate mobility between jurisdictions. We need more education and training capacity for nurses. We need to speed up the licensing of internationally educated nurses. And we must ensure that every person living in Canada can access the care they need when they need it. Because right now it’s not happening.

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What we need is more collaboration between governments and less politics. People don’t care about jurisdictional wrangling over health care. They care about having a functioning health care system.

Structural reform is urgent. Lives depend on it. The health of everyone living in Canada depends on it.

The Canadian Nurses Association urges federal, provincial and territorial governments to come together and develop clear priorities and concrete solutions that will transform the health care system and make it more sustainable.

— Sylvain Brousseau is President of the Canadian Nurses Association

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