Nearly half of the Yukon’s rural health centres have seen closures and limited services over the past few months due to staff shortages despite the territorial government touting progress and making an effort to get more much-needed health-care workers in the territory.
Since May, Pelly Crossing, Destruction Bay, Mayo, Teslin, Beaver Creek and Ross River health centres have been closed or had services reduced — for weeks at a time in some cases. Additionally, the Whitehorse hospital has warned about long wait times, the Dawson City hospital says it will take longer to get blood work and x-rays, and two local surgeons recently rang the alarm about extended waiting periods for joint replacement surgeries.
Meanwhile, three rural health centres are currently temporarily closed or closing due to a lack of nurses, according to a July 27 email from communications analyst Ken Hegan of the Health and Social Services department.
According to the email, Beaver Creek Health Centre will be shutting its doors again from Aug. 2 to 15 due to having no nurse. A doctor clinic will run as planned on Aug. 3. The centre had previously shuttered for nearly a month this spring.
Per the email, Pelly Crossing Health Centre has shut down from July 10 to Aug. 4.
A Facebook post by the department indicates the Ross River Health Centre will be closed for a month starting July 28. While no nurse is available during the closure, a doctor will visit the community for scheduled clinics. Ross River is getting added support from emergency medical services, which continues to place staff as workers become available. A nurse is expected to be in the community on Aug. 29, and full services will return on Aug. 31.
Per the post, 911 is still an option in the case of an emergency, and 811 can be called for non-emergency health issues.
Minister defends record
In a July 27 phone interview, Health Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee said the territory is progressing on the human health resources front.
Per the minister, the vacancy rate for government-employed community nurses has dropped from almost 47 per cent last year to 32 per cent. (A July 28 press release clarifies the vacancy rate is actually 32.9 per cent.)
The “find a primary care provider” program waitlist dipped from 3,840 clients in March to 3,402 as of July 27, Hegan wrote. Formerly known as the “find a family doctor” program, it now matches residents with a family doctor or a nurse practitioner.
McPhee said efforts are happening from the top of the nation to the frontlines. She argues the Yukon government is working on several solutions to get and keep health-care workers in the Yukon, including a recruitment and retention bonus package announced in December for nurses and a couple of relatively newer ones.
In March, the territorial government created a steering committee to come up with a strategy to address the health-care workforce shortage.
Citing a worldwide shortage of health and social services workers, a July 27 press release from the Yukon government formally announces that a human health resources steering committee has been formed.
“A committee like this is really unprecedented in the territory and maybe even anywhere,” McPhee said.
“We’ve brought together health-care partners and social services partners who understand the urgency and the intensity of the situation in our global shortage of health-care providers, and they’re seeking bold and innovative solutions for immediate action, mid-term action and long-term action.”
Per the release, the steering committee is being led by the territorial government and the Yukon Hospital Corporation and composed of representatives from the government and the corporation as well as the Yukon Medical Association, the Yukon Registered Nurses Association, the Yukon Medical Council, Yukon First Nations, the Yukon Employees Union, Yukon University and the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada.
According to the release, the strategy is intended to line up with best practices across Canada and focus on retaining, recruiting, planning and innovating. Priority actions include employee engagement, increasing training capacity, licensing and entry points, and developing a housing strategy to help employees. Eight working groups are being struck up to tackle related topics.
The release indicates the government is gathering information on health-care providers who were educated outside of Canada and are not currently working in their field to inform parts of the strategy, which is expected to be released this fall.
Publicly available briefing notes from the spring sitting of the Yukon Legislative Assembly state the Yukon government provided $500,000 to develop a cross-sectoral health human resources strategy as part of its commitment to the territorial Liberal-NDP confidence and supply agreement.
More recently, the Yukon government announced in a July 26 release that the Yukon Premier Ranj Pillai and Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston have signed a letter of intent to “support collaboration” between the two jurisdictions when it comes to health-care workers. It is intended to “set out areas for potential collaboration between Nova Scotia and the Yukon related to health human resources and guide work between the two jurisdictions.”
Opposition parties call for action
In a statement written as a letter to the editor, Yukon NDP MLA for Vuntut Gwitchin Annie Blake said the closures and service reductions are of great concern given the community health centres are the primary contact to access essential health services in rural communities.
“Many communities across the Yukon have declared both a mental health emergency and substance use emergency over recent years. Our territory is in crisis, and yet we see no concrete action from the government to better support communities when it comes to equitable access to health services delivered through local health centers,” Blake wrote.
Blake notes the nursing shortages can no longer be blamed on the COVID-19 pandemic at this point and staffing is a long-standing issue that needs to be addressed according to each community’s needs.
“Nurses and staff need more support from the Yukon government in communities. They work long hours and need to be available at all times. They are at high risk of burnout, which has been one of the driving factors of chronic understaffing. They often lack support for their own mental health, particularly after a traumatic incident.”
Meanwhile, little change has happened on the ground, she said.
“We are at a critical time where we need to truly look at decentralizing health services from Whitehorse and look at what and how more health-care services can be made available in communities.”
In a July 26 release, the Yukon Party calls on the territorial government to take action to prevent unacceptable rural health centre closures.
The release notes the gaps in services means rural residents, travelling Yukoners and visitors can’t access basic health care when they need it. The party wants the government to outline a plan that addresses gaps in operating hours and ensures rural Yukoners can access timely health care in their home community.
“Yukoners rightly expect to have access to basic health care services in rural communities,” Health and Social Services critic Brad Cathers said in the release.
“These gaps in service are the result of a Liberal government that has repeatedly neglected the basic needs of our health system, and emerging challenges in health-care delivery. For years, we have championed developing a new health human resources strategy that improves recruitment and retention and also helps Yukon citizens become trained as health professionals.”
Per the release, the party agrees with the Association of Yukon Communities that the government should allow licensed practical nurses to fill the gaps when registered nurses aren’t available.
McPhee is welcoming comments from the public.
“I just want to encourage folks that have questions or ideas or even feedback from Yukoners to send an email to us at [email protected].”
Contact Dana Hatherly at [email protected]