Health official answers sex assault nurse program critics, says fixes on the way
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Manitoba health officials are again promising improvements to the province’s sexual-assault nurse examiner program after glaring deficiencies were publicly highlighted earlier this week.
On Wednesday, the Manitoba Nurses Union and NDP accused the province of dragging its feet on a commitment made last April by Health Minister Audrey Gordon to increase access for sex-assault survivors who require examination by nurses trained in gathering criminal evidence.
A shortage of nurses who can perform the examinations has resulted in Health Sciences Centre staff sending women home with instructions not to shower or wipe themselves after using the washroom until they can return, in order to preserve evidence.
“We recognize that this is exceptionally difficult for anyone who has undergone a trauma of this nature and we are extremely committed and passionate about making significant improvements to the service so that this no longer occurs,” Monika Warren, chief operating officer of provincial health services and chief nursing officer for Shared Health told a virtual news conference Friday afternoon.
Staff shortages worsened during the pandemic and health officials previously recognized “significant changes” were necessary, Warren said.
The program has always relied heavily on casual nurses, she said, explaining “over the years, the staffing model has led to unavoidable gaps in service coverage,” which has led to victims being medically assessed and treated in the meantime, and advised of the need to wait for a forensic exam.
She delivered an update on the program’s progress since the Gordon announced an expansion of the program with $642,000 in annual funding.
The plan was to hire a provincial co-ordinator, have permanent staff working around the clock and provide services in other areas of the province.
“Since then, we’ve been working really hard to build up this service. The work has not been without its challenges, and we acknowledge there have been continued occasions where we have not been able to provide the service that Manitobans expect and deserve, and we are committed to fixing that,” Warren said.
Fourteen victims visited HSC when a sexual-assault nurse examiner was not available between April 1, 2022 and Tuesday, she said. One person opted to return the next day for an exam, nine were examined later the same day and four refused an exam.
The program had 764 patient visits during that time period.
If the exam isn’t conducted the same day, patients are instructed not to clean themselves (the purpose of the exam, in part, is to gather DNA evidence). Hospital staff encourage patients to wait until a nurse is available, rather than go home and return later.
Warren said five of the seven permanent new positions have been filled with nurses still undergoing training. The process of hiring a new program manager is in the final stages, and that person is expected to start work within the next four to six weeks.
Warren said training has been offered to northern nurses and will soon be offered in the Prairie Mountain Health Region.
Experienced nurses are still working on a casual basis within the program. Staffing shortages are typically worse on weekends and during the summer months, she said, adding the hope is to improve the wait times for exams.
And she had a message to sexual assault survivors.
“Please continue to utilize our service. We have compassionate, dedicated staff who want to support you, not only initially but as you work through a healing process of that very traumatic event.”
Katie May is a general-assignment reporter for the Free Press.