Citing emergency department nurse morale and staffing levels being at "all-time lows," in turn putting quality acute care at risk, dozens of doctors in Winnipeg wrote to the province to ask their colleagues’ wages and benefits be adjusted.
"I don’t think you can say money will solve all problems, but I certainly think that they felt slighted by not receiving the recognition of their vital role and the high risk they’ve assumed throughout the course of this pandemic," Dr. Noam Katz, who works in St. Boniface Hospital's emergency department, said Monday.
"Quite frankly, we can’t provide adequate support without them. They are one of the major pillars of health care."
Katz is one of 66 ER physicians at Health Sciences Centre, St. Boniface and Grace Hospital who co-signed a letter sent to Premier Brian Pallister and acting health minister Kelvin Goertzen outlining "grave concerns" about experienced nurses resigning and the overall state of the profession in emergency departments.
"Dysfunction in (emergency departments) will significantly impact care for the public, not only for COVID-related problems but for all aspects of acute care," states the letter dated June 3. "We implore the government to immediately address this vital and time-sensitive issue."
The health-care system’s resources have been stretched beyond capacity for weeks as Manitoba grapples with an unprecedented number of COVID-19 patients requiring intensive care.
Meantime, contentious bargaining talks between nurses and provincial representatives continue. Members of the Manitoba Nurses Union began casting ballots in a strike vote over the weekend.
The workload for emergency nurses screening and caring for an increasing number of patients with COVID-19 — as well as the ongoing meth crisis, which has resulted in high levels of patient psychosis, agitation and both physical and verbal aggression toward professionals — are taking a toll, the doctors say.
"I’ve seen our nurses kicked and punched, some of them strangled," said Katz. "I’ve been in some situations where I’ve felt unsafe. We have a massive increase in our need for security to be in our emergency departments."
Despite their close work with COVID-19 patients, the signatories noted emergency nurses were left out of a pandemic wage benefit negotiated with the nurses union in the fall.
Such a decision shows a lack of understanding about their role, Katz said.
In the letter, the physicians wrote numerous factors are impacting burnout and, consequently, many emergency shifts are now operating short of nurses. While departments are hiring new grads, these professionals cannot immediately replace senior nurses' expertise, they noted.
In a statement Monday, Goertzen said he appreciates the insights and shares concerns about the nursing colleagues.
He indicated there is misunderstanding about what has happened and remains ongoing at the bargaining table, noting government is not the employer. (Shared Health directed a reporter to the health minister's press secretary.)
"But we understand that the Shared Health and Winnipeg Regional Health Authority employers have made clear shift premium proposals for these hard-pressed ED nurses, with retroactivity. And we understand those proposals remain on the table," Goertzen said.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.