‘Everyone is feeling very discouraged’: sex assault nurse program staffing issues remain
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A growing number of sexual assault victims seeking help at Manitoba’s largest hospital were sent home without a forensic exam this month, as nurses trained to gather criminal evidence say staffing shortages continue to worsen, despite assurance help is on the way.
Winnipeg nurse Katie Stark has been a part of the sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE) program at the Health Sciences Centre for more than a decade, providing forensic exams and support to survivors of sexual violence. Staffing shortages within the program have only deepened since the Manitoba Nurses Union raised alarm bells last month, she said.
A shortage of forensic nurse examiners has led to sexual assault victims being sent home with instructions not to shower or wipe themselves after using the washroom to preserve evidence until they can see a nurse, according to the union. Others are being told to wait hours in the emergency department until a nurse arrives.
“Everyone is feeling very discouraged,” Stark said. “We’re very passionate about our patients and it’s very difficult to see all the open shifts that are there, and we worry about our patients so much.
“It’s been really difficult.”
Seven people were given instructions to wait in the emergency department or head home in February alone, according to preliminary numbers from Shared Health. Four had their exams completed within hours of arriving at hospital; three left without being seen.
By comparison, over a nine-month period ending Jan. 24, a total of 14 patients visited HSC when no forensic nurse examiner was immediately available.
Stark said there were 21, eight-hour forensic nurse examiner shifts that were either partially covered (phone consultation only) or had no coverage at all in February. The program has one full-time nurse, plus a little more than a dozen others who work in other nursing roles and are on call to conduct sexual assault examinations in their off-hours.
Stark said nurses with the program feel significant distress knowing patients may wait for hours or be sent home altogether if their shift ends and no coverage is scheduled. The uncertainty about how such situations will be managed is also a deterrent for casual nurses to pick up shifts, she said.
“So, I can go home, and the patient will wait. And that’s just very distressing for me and I know that I won’t go home,” Stark said. “So, no matter what is going on, what I had planned, how many hours I have worked, I’m going to stay and I’m going to continue to see patients.”
In April 2022, the Progressive Conservative government announced it would spend $642,000 annually to expanded the sexual assault nurse examiner program, hire a provincial program manager, add five full-time nurses, and establish satellite sites in rural and northern communities.
The program was to be up and running early this year.
However, Stark said communication between management and front-line nurses has broken down and morale has fallen over the course of the program expansion.
“With the way things have been rolled out, the lack of communication, the eroded relationship… nurses are not feeling safe and comfortable to pick up in our program.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for Shared Health said there was a decrease in casual nursing pool coverage for sexual assault nurse examiner shifts in February. However, there were no gaps in coverage in January.
“We recognize these situations are exceptionally difficult for anyone who has undergone a trauma of this nature, and we deeply regret that any patient must be provided with the difficult choice to either wait or return,” the spokesperson said Monday.
“With the way things have been rolled out, the lack of communication, the eroded relationship… nurses are not feeling safe and comfortable to pick up in our program.”–Katie Stark
“We are committed to improving access and reliability of these services in the coming months, and continue to look for opportunities to ensure shifts are staffed to the fullest extent possible through call-outs to our casual workforce.”
According to the health authority, a provincial program manager was hired earlier this month, and began overseeing the program Monday. Six of seven nursing positions have also been filled, and the final position, a maternity leave, will be posted soon.
Three new hires have already started their jobs, with two completing classroom training. A third new hire joins the program from the SANE casual nursing pool and can work independently, the spokesperson said.
Three other nurses start their education and orientation in April. All the new hires are expected to be working independently within the next six months.
A request for comment from Health Minister Audrey Gordon’s office was not returned Monday.
“It’s devastating. You can’t undo that harm. That harm should have never happened in the first place.”–Uzoma Asagwara
NDP health critic Uzoma Asagwara said while it is good to see nurses are being hired and positions filled, it is inexcusable a single person is told to return home to wait for care following a sexual assault.
“It’s devastating,” the MLA for Union Station said. “You can’t undo that harm. That harm should have never happened in the first place.”
Asagwara said the province and Shared Health must provide regular updates as the program expands to ensure services are available to survivors.
“Being turned away from this kind of care not only means that survivors might go without the emotional and physical health care that they need, it also potentially means they’ll be denied the justice they deserve,” the MLA said.
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.