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NWT healthcare services understaffed, ‘could become stressed’

Staffing shortages in the healthcare system could hurt the NWT’s ability to manage the ongoing Sahtu outbreak in the future.

Health and Social Services Authority spokesperson David Maguire said in an email that there’s a “risk that our internal system resources could become stressed.” 

“We are seeing staffing levels lower than ideal in different parts of the system and we are working hard to address this,” he said in an email. 

“This is due to a very competitive job market across the country for health and social services professionals,” he added. “Summer is also generally a time where we have a harder time recruiting locum and casual temporary workers that often provide an important part of our workforce.”

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On August 9, Stanton Territorial Hospital had to cut back its number of intensive care beds from four to two — the other two beds were downgraded to 2 lower acuity beds — to staffing shortfalls.

“While there are no current impacts to patients admitted to Stanton, if there are more than two critical level patients at Stanton they may be either diverted to Alberta before admission or stabilized and moved to Alberta when able,” said Maguire.

Maguire says demand during the outbreak has been met by shifting healthcare staff to communities impacted hardest by the outbreak, with clinic services in Yellowknife being cut back, and services in the Dehcho and Shatu region being moved to emergency only.

The federal government has recently sent some staff to help manage the outbreak. Maguire says a field epidemiologist from the Public Health Agency of Canada is already in the NWT, and by the end of the week nine nurses will also have been sent to the territory.

Maguire says the GNWT is running programs to try and retain staff that are currently working in the NWT and to attract new ones.

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The GNWT’s health department has partnered with the Registered Nurses Association of the NWT and Nunavut to survey staff about issues impacting their morale.

Another partnership, with the University of Alberta, is setting up a northern Family Medicine residency program, which is currently training four medical residents with two new spots available each year.

“We have been able to meet the current level of demand by shifting and redirecting our internal resources according to our pandemic plan, the outbreak situation continues to unfold and there is a risk that our internal system resources could become stressed – particularly if large numbers of staff become impacted by public exposure notices or availability of school/childcare in the coming weeks,” said Maguire. 

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