Paramedics to help out at N.W.T. health centres as territory contends with staff shortages

The N.W.T.'s health department is set to contract paramedics to help out at health centres and provide acute care in remote communities, as part of a string of new initiatives aimed at bolstering staff numbers.

Money for travel, rewards for nurse referrals among initiatives announced by gov't Thursday

The N.W.T.'s health department is set to contract paramedics to help out at health centres and provide acute care in remote communities.

It's part of a string of new initiatives aimed at bolstering staff numbers.

Some of the initiatives, including paramedic use and a plan to cover some costs for nurses and physicians to bring up family members during the Christmas season, have already been tested in Nunavut. They're "tried and true," said N.W.T. Health and Social Services Minister Julie Green.

Green spoke to reporters Thursday morning about the changes, alongside deputy minister Jo-Anne Cecchetto and Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek.

There's no long-term plan to have paramedics replace nurses, Green noted — rather, it's an effort to boost staff numbers and the two groups are meant to complement each other, with paramedics filling an emergency response role.

The territory has already done a trial run of this in Fort Providence, N.W.T., and paramedics have been used in the emergency department at Stanton Territorial Hospital as well.

"This is an experiment that we're doing to figure out whether those two skill sets can be complementary and work effectively together," Green said.

Travel subsidies, rewards for referrals

The territory plans to cover up to $2,000 of the costs for each casual, term and indeterminate nurse practitioners, registered nurses and physicians to bring two people up to their community for Christmas — if those workers are scheduled to work five days or more between Dec. 20 and Jan. 4.

That's aimed at helping to make sure shifts are covered during "difficult-to-staff periods," states a government news release.

The government will also cover the costs of international travel for physicians, nurse practitioners and registered nurses who are living abroad but who want to work in the N.W.T.

Government employees can also now receive $1,000 if they successfully refer a nurse or physician for positions the government considers "hard to recruit" and "front-line," and another $1,000 if that person stays for a year.

The government also plans to reimburse locum physicians at the end of their contract for licensing fees, and will make it quicker for those physicians to be licensed.

Finally, the territorial government is creating four new positions to help provide better orientation for all new staff members — one of the criticisms nurses expressed in a recent survey.

"All of the initiatives, we're trying in an effort to increase retention and recruitment. Any and all of them may be successful — and, of course, may not," Green said.

In total, the territory expects to spend $2.3 million on these initiatives.

The initiatives aren't guaranteed to stave off service reductions, Green noted.

Many health centres — 15 in total as of Thursday afternoon — were operating on reduced or emergency services, and there's still a possibility more reductions could be required this year.

No wage increases on the table

The announcement comes on the heels of the public release of a survey where N.W.T. and Nunavut nurses said they're burned out, being crushed under unmanageable workloads and in many cases aren't happy in their jobs.

Nurses listed annual cash incentives, more professional development opportunities and more scheduling flexibility as changes that could entice them to stay.

Wawzonek said any changes to compensation, pay and benefits would require the government to engage with its union since it's covered by the collective agreement.

She said she wouldn't say whether there are plans to discuss it with the union, but "there's a recognition, both by the employer and the union of the fact that health care is in a challenging place."

As for professional development, Wawzonek said one of the issues is that nurses simply can't take advantage of good opportunities that exist because their workload is too high.

Thursday's announcement is aimed at addressing that, she noted.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

April Hudson

Reporter

April Hudson is a digital journalist with CBC News in Yellowknife. After a career in print journalism in the N.W.T. and Alberta, she joined CBC North in 2021. You can reach her at april.hudson@cbc.ca.

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