Health minister announces added capacity to shrink massive wait lists Spent nurses will pay for province’s surgery plan, union fears

A plan by the Progressive Conservative government to double surgical slates this summer has triggered labour concerns as Manitoba nurses brace for cancelled vacations and mandated overtime. 

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This article was published 30/03/2022 (188 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A plan by the Progressive Conservative government to double surgical slates this summer has triggered labour concerns as Manitoba nurses brace for cancelled vacations and mandated overtime. 

On Wednesday, Health Minister Audrey Gordon said the province plans to run surgical slates at 75 to 100 per cent capacity through the summer months in order to catch up on thousands of operations that were delayed owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Surgical volumes typically drop to about 40 per cent through the summer as part of scheduled slowdowns to accommodate vacation time for surgeons, nurses and other health-care staff. 

“This equates to approximately 200 to 250 surgical slates over the summer months as a recovery measure moving forward,” Gordon said during an announcement at Concordia Hospital with the diagnostic and surgical recovery task force.

“This equates to approximately 200 to 250 surgical slates over the summer months as a recovery measure moving forward.” – Audrey Gordon, health minister

Manitoba Nurses Union president Darlene Jackson said the ambitious plan will come at the expense of her exhausted members, who recently learned fewer nurses would be permitted to take time off this summer.

“It’s very clear that we are getting to the point where our numbers are dwindling and that there’s fewer and fewer nurses out there to get these surgeries done,” Jackson said, adding nurses are routinely asked to give up holiday time for extra pay. “Nurses in this province are going to be expected to step up and volunteer and if they don’t… we could very well be looking at nurses having vacations cancelled.”

Jackson described plans brought forward by the task force to address the growing backlog — including opening a new operating room at Concordia Hospital, expanding spinal assessment services and purchasing new diagnostic imaging machines — as great solutions that do not take into account the ongoing staffing crisis in the health-care system.

The government's plan will come at the expense of her exhausted members, who recently learned fewer nurses would be permitted to take time off this summer, says Manitoba Nurses Union president Darlene Jackson. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

“When we hear messages like, ‘we’re really going to ramp up surgeries,’ my first question is, where are they going to get the staff to do this?” she said. “There were no clear answers on that at all.” 

The plan to deliver thousands more CT scans and MRIs could fail to come to fruition if human-resource challenges among diagnostic imaging staff are not urgently addressed, said Manitoba Association of Health Care Professionals president Bob Moroz.

The task force ordered the purchase of a new mobile CT unit and two new mobile MRI units for use in Winnipeg. Once fully operational, they will deliver an estimated 11,600 CT scans and 7,200 MRIs annually.

“The addition of mobile MRI and CT units is a first step, but machines don’t operate themselves,” Moroz said. “Questions remain about how quickly capacity can increase without a plan to train and hire more technologists, and still no word on ultrasound, mammography and other important tests.” 

Moroz said additional staff are needed to bring down wait times that have continued to increase, even though testing volumes have returned to, and at times exceeded, pre-pandemic levels. 

“We need to do more to retain the qualified professionals we have and to train and hire more of them, or they will take their skills somewhere else and the wait times and testing backlog we are seeing today will become a chronic and lasting problem,” he said.

Dr. Peter MacDonald, the diagnostic and surgical recovery task force chair, said a new surgeon will be recruited to open a fifth operating room and four in-patient beds by the end of the calendar year at Concordia. The province will also invest in anesthesia staff to increase orthopedic surgery capacity by approximately 1,000 cases annually. 

A new surgeon will be recruited to open a fifth operating room and four in-patient beds by the end of the calendar year at Concordia, said Dr. Peter MacDonald, the diagnostic and surgical recovery task force chair. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

The Concordia Hospital Foundation must raise half of the $700,000 needed to refurbish the operating room, with the province footing the rest of the bill. Running the additional operating room will cost approximately $4.9 million.

Another $400,000 will be spent to improve waits at the Spine Assessment Clinic for an estimated 900 people who need appointments. The province will hire four new physical therapists to offer on-site, virtual and travel-based assessment services by September. 

Finally, the province intends to increase Misericordia Health Centre’s cataract program capacity by inking an agreement with an unspecified service provider.

A broader human-resources strategy was not part of the task force announcement Wednesday. 

NDP health critic Uzoma Asagwara said the initiatives brought forward by the province lacked details and raised more questions and concerns, particularly around staffing the promised programs. 

“It’s one thing to make an announcement that you’re going to expand orthopedic surgeries in Concordia Hospital. It’s another thing to substantiate that announcement with actual plans in terms of how you’re going to staff it,” Asagwara said. “Health-care workers who are totally burned out are being asked right now to give up their summer vacations and plans with their families.” 

“It’s one thing to make an announcement that you’re going to expand orthopedic surgeries in Concordia Hospital. It’s another thing to substantiate that announcement with actual plans in terms of how you’re going to staff it.” – NDP health critic Uzoma Asagwara

Liberal leader and St. Boniface MLA Dougald Lamont said the government set a low bar for success Wednesday.

“This is nowhere near good enough,” Lamont said in a statement. “Ultimately, it’s people who provide health care and that’s where we need to see investments, especially in nurses.”

Doctors Manitoba president Kristjan Thompson said he was encouraged by the “concrete steps” taken by the task force since its last full update in mid-January. 

The physicians advocacy group estimates the surgery and diagnostic backlog has now surpassed 160,000 cases, representing about 10 per cent of the province’s population. The group has asked the province to set a timeline to clear the logjam.

“While much more work and investment will be needed… these initiatives are positive steps in the right direction,” Thompson said in a statement. 

— With files from Katlyn Streilen 

danielle.dasilva@freepress.mb.ca

Dr. Ed Buchel, diagnostic and surgical recovery task force provincial surgery lead. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)
Health Minister Audrey Gordon (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)
Danielle Da Silva

Danielle Da Silva
Reporter

Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.

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Updated on Wednesday, March 30, 2022 6:53 PM CDT: Updates with extra info, quotes from Darlene Jackson, new photos, formatting

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