Nurse-to-patient ratios in N.S. will help address burnout, workplace injuries, says union

The latest collective agreement for nurses in Nova Scotia includes a provision that will set nurse-to-patient ratios for hospital settings. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)
The latest collective agreement for nurses in Nova Scotia includes a provision that will set nurse-to-patient ratios for hospital settings. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)

Janet Hazelton believes there's light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to the challenging working conditions that nurses in hospitals face across Nova Scotia.

After years of concerns about burnout, excessive overtime and the inability for nurses to get breaks and vacation when they need it because of staffing shortages, Hazelton, the president of the Nova Scotia Nurses' Union, said the stage is set for that to change.

That's because of a provision in the most recent collective agreement for nurses that will set nurse-to-patient ratios for hospital settings.

Hazelton told reporters at the union's annual meeting in Truro on Monday that by the end of the month, the guaranteed core staffing for every unit in Nova Scotia hospitals will be settled. Nurses will then be able to review those numbers and request an assessment if they think staffing should be increased.

"We've never been part of this before," said Hazelton. "We've asked for more staff before, but it's never been a decision that we get to make. It's a decision that we're going to be part of making now."

'The model for the rest of the country'

Despite high nursing vacancies in the province, Hazelton believes meeting the ratios is doable because more than 1,000 nurses from other parts of Canada have already applied for temporary licences to work here. As well, there are ongoing efforts to streamline the credentialing process for internationally trained nurses who want to come to Nova Scotia.

"That's a lot of nurses, and so we think with proper orientation and proper onboard, those numbers should be ready to practise within two to three months," said Hazelton.

The change will have a "huge" impact on the working lives of nurses, she added. Nurses will go to work knowing they won't be overloaded with patients, that they'll be able to take breaks, and they'll be able to go home at the time their shift is scheduled to end.

Linda Silas, president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, lauded the fact that Nova Scotia is just the second province, after British Columbia, to secure ratios. She told the crowd of about 250 people attending the meeting that she is using Nova Scotia "as the model for the rest of the country" for how to move things along.

Silas told reporters that bringing in ratios might not happen overnight, but she said that effort along with others intended to boost the workforce, such as retention bonuses, streamlined credentialing and guaranteed job offers to graduates, are all part of the effort to fix working conditions.

"It's all different steps to a puzzle to make it work."

Improved patient outcomes

Health Minister Michelle Thompson said the commitment to ratios needed to happen because patients are sicker and more complex to treat than they used to be. In places that already have ratios, such as California, the measure has helped reduce patient mortality and shorten hospital stays.

Thompson said the government is also hoping that people who have recently left the profession might decide to come back as they see things changing for the better.

Hazelton said those changes could also include fewer workplace injuries because nurses will not have to rush as much, and a decrease in violence because patients aren't waiting as long for care — a situation she said can sometimes lead to anger.

"We're hoping that with more nurses, nurses will be more excited about going to work — they won't dread their shifts."